People cast their ballots during early voting in Bangkok on March 17, 2019, ahead of the March 24 general election. Photo: Jewel Samad / AFP

Hundreds of thousands of voters crowded into schools, parking lots and temples across Thailand on Sunday, eager to cast an early ballot a week before the country’s first election in eight years.

Advanced voting is usually a tepid affair, but on Sunday excitement was high as voters turned up in droves to polling stations.

More than 2.3 million Thais are expected to vote before the official March 24 poll date.

Since the 2014 coup ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the junta has repeatedly postponed democratic elections.

“I finally have a chance to cast my vote as I’ve waited for so long,” said Paka Kaengkhiew, 48, as she stood in line in front of Bangkok’s Phra Khanong district office.

In Dusit district – home to military offices and government buildings – voters crowded in a schoolyard before a polling station there opened.

People dressed in their work clothes – military uniforms, hospital scrubs and more casual attire – waited patiently to cast their ballot, aided by student helpers.

At 9am Prem Tinsulanonda, the powerful head of the Privy Council – the advisory board to Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn – arrived at the school.

Watched by Thai and international media, Prem, 98, was pushed in a wheelchair into a classroom boasting a portrait of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom he advised, before walking the final steps to a polling booth.

More than 51 million Thais are eligible to vote in the official March 24 election, which will be held under a new military-scripted constitution.

Analysts say the new electoral system favors the army-aligned party fronted by junta leader Prayut Chan-ocha, who is running to be civilian prime minister after a government is formed.

But voters on Sunday still held on to hopes for change.

“I vote today in the hope for better change,” said Mart Bupa, 53.

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse

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