Thai voters flocked to the polls on Sunday for the first elections since a 2014 coup, and an exit poll indicated the party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra would win the most seats, though not enough to form a government.
The race has pitted military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seeking to stay on as prime minister against a “democratic front” led by the Pheu Thai Party loyal to Thaksin.
Thailand has been under direct military rule since the then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected pro-Thaksin government in 2014.
Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin was himself thrown out by the army in 2006 and has lived in self-exile since 2008.
Immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT), the Thai PBS channel aired an exit poll by Thai research center Super Poll that indicated Pheu Thai would win 163 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.
The same exit poll indicated junta chief’s Palang Pracharat would win 96 seats, the establishment Democrat Party 77 seats, the Bhumjaithai Party 59 seats, and the new Future Forward Party 40 seats.
If correct, the projection would mean that Pheu Thai would not have enough votes to form a majority government.
Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat Party also could not form a government on its own, but it would have a better chance to form a coalition needed to elect a prime minister due to junta-written electoral rules that favor it.
The turnout was estimated to be high as 80 percent among the 51.4 million Thais eligible to vote, the Election Commission said about an hour before the polls closed.
Critics have said a new, junta-written electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party from returning to power.
Fears of the potential for foul play ricocheted across social media in a reflection of the lingering mistrust between rival political camps, in a country which last held general elections in 2011.
“Thai people come to vote because they want change,” said Somkid, 64, giving only one name, as she waited outside the headquarters of the Pheu Thai Party. “If there is any vote rigging, there will be protests.”
Sunday’s crunch vote was foreshadowed by a cryptic last-minute warning from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to support “good” leaders to prevent “chaos.”
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the palace is nominally above politics.
The kingdom remains bitterly divided despite the junta’s pledge to rescue it from a decade-long treadmill of protests and coups.
Voters are choosing members for the 500-seat House of Representatives. The lower house of parliament and an upper house Senate, which is appointed entirely by the ruling junta, will select the next government.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, but the past 15 years have seen crippling street protests both by his opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.