BANGKOK: A national election billed as a referendum on Thailand’s acceptance of military rule has failed to produce a clear mandate from voters, with the country set to contend with fraught power negotiations and a deeply split parliament.
After five years under a military government following a coup d'etat in 2014, the election on Sunday (Mar 24) was met with enthusiasm from the public, but the outcome is unlikely to settle many of the divisions that have riddled Thailand in recent times.
The man who led the military government and its mission to restore peace and order, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, is all but assured of completing his transformation into a bonafide politician.
But he could be left the leader of a party with little to no law-making ability in parliament.
His party - Palang Pracharat (PPRP) - performed better than expected, especially in Bangkok, and with the advantage of the junta’s 250 handpicked senators boosting his numbers, he will easily have the support required to claim the premiership.
This was part of a wider electoral system change introduced by the military in an effort to disadvantage larger establishment opposition parties, a measure labelled as unfair and undemocratic by critics.
In essence, it means Palang Pracharat had a target of only 126 seats in the lower house to secure the prime ministership, a number it was set to easily surpass.
It was unclear though if Prayut’s party - and any smaller aligned outfits who won seats - could reach a number to form government and pass legislation.
Preliminary results showed PPRP close to deadlocked with the Thaksin Shinawatra-controlled Pheu Thai party, which is set to become a powerhouse in the future parliament and will attempt to form a coalition government.
“We don’t want to fight with anyone for power. We'll be happy to work with parties that refuse to support the power inheritance of the military junta and General Prayut. We hope 250 senators will follow the will of the people,” said Pheu Thai’s principle prime ministerial candidate, Sudarat Keyuraphan.
Control of the 500-seat House of Representatives is key to the future running of the country.
A minority government would make any government weak and destabilise an already delicate political environment.
Pheu Thai is expected to join forces with the progressive Future Forward party (FWP), which under the leadership of charismatic billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit exceeded expectations in terms of raw votes received.
FWP had set out to energise the nation’s youth and some seven million first time voters, and in urban areas the party proved a powerful element in its debut election.
“This election is not the end. This election is not the goal line but a route to a sustainable democracy. Having justice in the society will take time,” Thanathorn said at a party news conference.
The posturing of other key parties could prove critical. The normally neutral Bhumjaithai party, which ran on a platform pushing for the legalisation of marijuana and rideshare services, could prove to be kingmakers. It will be courted hard by both sides.
“We don’t have a stance yet. We’re not siding with anyone until we get the final results,” Bhumjaithai leader Anuthin Charnweerakul said.
It was a calamitous day for the Democrat Party, which saw its vote severely tank, to the extent it was set to win no seats in the capital. It is now a smaller-than-expected force, but still lodged firmly in the middle of negotiations.
But the party will move forward without longtime Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva at its helm, after the former prime minister announced he would stand down from the party’s top job, effective immediately.
He had previously suggested he would do so if he failed to claim 100 seats this election, and this now leaves a strong pro-military faction within the party with leverage to take control.
“Although the vote count has yet to complete, it’s clear the election result is not what I expected. My intention to work for the people and the party has never faded but I have to keep my word,” Abhisit said.
Voting was mostly recorded as unfolding smoothly throughout the country on Sunday, with more than 92,000 polling stations operating.
There were isolated cases of suspected irregularities, including cases of vote buying and concerns about the colour of ink in pens provided at polling stations.
The delayed arrival of about 1,500 overseas ballots from New Zealand will also be examined by Election Commission and could be disqualified.
Vote counting was continuing through Sunday and a final official result will be confirmed within 60 days.