Vote counting was under way on Sunday in Thailand’s general election, touted as a pivotal chance for change nine years after incumbent prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha first came to power in a 2014 coup.
Mr Prayuth is now running against the daughter of the politician who is the military’s top nemesis.
The polls closed at 5pm and some results were expected in the early evening, with a fuller picture emerging later on Sunday night. Thai elections use paper ballots that are counted publicly at polling stations.
The opposition Pheu Thai Party, headed by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is widely predicted to win at least a healthy plurality of seats in the 500-member lower house.
But who heads the next government will not by decided by Sunday’s vote alone. The prime minister will be selected in July in a joint session of the house and the 250-seat senate. The winner must secure at least 376 votes and no party is likely to do that on its own.
Pheu Thai won the most seats in the last election in 2019, but its arch-rival, the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, succeeded in cobbling together a coalition with Mr Prayuth as prime minister.
It relied on unanimous support from the senate, whose members share the military’s conservative outlook and were appointed by the military government after Mr Prayuth’s coup.
Mr Prayuth is backed by the United Thai Nation Party; his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, another former general, is the standard bearer for Palang Pracharath.
Mr Prayuth has been blamed for a stuttering economy, shortcomings in addressing the pandemic and thwarting democratic reforms, a particularly sore point with younger voters. At his polling station, he also encouraged people to come out to vote.
“The increased youth vote and general awareness of the damage caused by military rule are key factors likely to determine the results of this election,” Tyrell Haberkorn, a Thai studies specialist at the University of Wisconsin in the US, said.
Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties linked to populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by an army coup in 2006.
Paetongtarn Shinawatra is his daughter. Her aunt, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011, was toppled in the coup led by Mr Prayuth.
Pheu Thai and Ms Paetongtarn, the most popular of the party’s three registered candidates for prime minister, are strides ahead of the competition in the opinion polls.
“I think the conservative/royalist side, underpinning the military, the monarchy, their backs are against the wall. Change is coming and they have to find a way to deal with it,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said.
That means Pheu Thai will have to tread carefully after Sunday’s election in choosing possible coalition partners.