BANGKOK - Thais voted Sunday in an election called a return to democratic rule, but which has been widely criticized as an exercise designed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to entrench his military’s stranglehold on power.
Counting began immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m.
Exit polls had indicated a strong showing for the Pheu Thai party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra but initial officials results released Sunday had the military backed Phalang Pracharat party in the lead.
The campaign was marred by allegations of vote buying, however, complaints were few on polling day with election observers from Australia, Canada, the United States and the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations on hand.
Security was tight and opinions were mixed as about 52 million Thais voted. But the long shadow of the military is still having an impact, most of those willing to express an opinion declined to be identified.
Some were positive about the outcomes, particularly among the youth vote. A hotel receptionist said before voting, “I have my choice in my mind, it’s good for me, I like it.”
Another said she had faith in a political system guided by the military and Thailand's 20th constitution, written after 13 coups since 1932, “We are very confident with the election today, it is going to be democratic and fair to the society.”
Others remained angry about the coup in 2014, which ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and installed General Prayut as head of a junta that curtailed civil liberties and banned political opposition.
“The coup is a really terrible thing that happened to our country. You can not say what you want or what you think, you can not protest because they will take you to the jail,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by others who said it was wrong that Prayut and the military could dominate the political system and exert their influence to the point where they are widely expected to remain in control after this election.
“To answer whether to bring democracy back to Thailand is good or not; I won’t say it's good,” one middle-aged businessman said. “Everywhere in the world, in every country — even in America — you see how democracy works. Does it work for the country or the privileged few?”
Paul Chen, 80, was an exception. He spoke openly and said the elections were a step in the right direction and could provide a much needed boost for the economy, but noted the legal restrictions imposed by the junta.
“After today I think everything will be getting better,” he said. “They have so many good political parties, about two or three, but I can not mention their name, it may be against the law.”
Thais have cast votes for the 500-seat House of Representatives, while 250 members in the Senate will be appointed by the armed forces. A joint session of both houses will elect the next prime minister.
A key figure will be the overall popular vote. Pheu Thai, the party of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin — who was also ousted by a coup in 2006 — are expected to poll well in the rural north.
Future Forward, led by the young entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has been effective in attracting the youth vote with promises to end military conscription, and inclusive polices have endeared him to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The youth vote and the LGBT community number around seven million each. Combined, they share 25 percent of the total vote. But seat distribution and absolute military control of the Senate leaves General Prayut’s Phalang Pracharat as the only likely clear winner.
“In Thailand today after five years of dictatorship, we see these rising expectations among voters. Social mobilization, political participation, people want change,” said Paul Chambers, lecturer and special advisor on international affairs at Naresuan University, Phitsanulok.
“You know the last time there was a long period like this of dictatorship between elections, my gosh its maybe 30 years ago. So people really want change. Now the junta leaders are not stupid, they’re certainly trying to corral and control.”
During a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Chambers said, "... you know you can’t stay in power militarily forever, you have to change your legitimacy, somehow. And the best way to do that in the world today is to have a so-called democracy.
Election results are not expected to be ratified until late May.