A voter places a ballot in a box during voting in Bangkok, Thailand, 24 March, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Anusak Laowilas

Thailand’s coup-ousted Peua Thai party won the most out of 350 constituency seats up for grabs at Sunday’s general election, the country’s Election Commission announced in anticipated results released today based on a 95% vote count.

Peua Thai won 40.1% of the seats (137), outpacing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s Palang Pracharat (PPRP) military proxy party (97), which won 27.9%. Bhumjaithai (11.3%, 39 seats), the Democrats (9.6%, 33 seats) and Future Forward (8.7%, 30 seats) placed third, fourth and fifth respectively, the preliminary results showed.

Results for an additional 150 party list seats, calculated by a mixed representative system that tallies winning and losing votes, will be announced on Friday, the EC said. Because Peua Thai only fielded candidates in 250 out of 350 seats, it is expected to lag in the party list vote.

Final official election results won’t be released until May 9. Today’s EC announcement thus did little to lift the cloud of uncertainty fast gathering over the kingdom’s politics.

The lack of clarity was accentuated by rising complaints of irregularities at Sunday’s polls, ranging from stuffed ballot boxes, to ghost voters, to military intimidation of soldier voters. There are also questions about why the EC first claimed voter turnout was 80% but later inexplicably revised down the figure to 64%.

A Thai official checks the time at a polling station, ahead of voting in the general election in Bangkok, 24 March, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Anusak Laowilas

The Election Commission chalked up the irregularities to “human error” and said it would investigate and act on complaints of fraud, manipulation or intimidation. While social media was ablaze with complaints, foreign observers contacted by Asia Times did not initially see evidence of widespread and systematic fraud.

Both Peua Thai and PPRP said on Monday they would respect the result and move ahead in trying to form a coalition, despite the lack of electoral clarity. Peua Thai prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan declared certain victory on Monday, saying at a press conference that the party with the most seats should be allowed first try to form a ruling coalition.

While the anti-junta Future Forward and the conservative Democrats are expected to join Peua Thai and PPRP respectively, Bhumjaithai will likely play the kingmaker role for which side is able to form a majority in the 500-member lower house of parliament.

That won’t necessarily be enough to form a government, however. A 250-member Senate, to be appointed by the miltiary and seated in late April, will also have a vote on the next premier, meaning Prayut’s PPRP and coalition partners will only need 126 seats to hand Prayut the premiership in a minority government arrangement.

Analysts suggest that’s only part of the math PPRP will likely raise in negotiations with the pragmatic Bhumjaithai.

Bhum Jai Thai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul. Photo: APF Forum via Bangkok Post/Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

Led by Anutin Charnvirakul, a construction tycoon with ties to both PPRP and Peua Thai, Bhumjaithai ran on a medley of colorful policies, including a vow to legalize marijuana to enrich Thai farmers, that avoided confrontational politicking.

Anutin said on Monday that he had not yet discussed forming a coalition with any other parties. Before the polls, the tycoon said he would lean towards the winning side, while one party insider said he has his eye on becoming the next Speaker of parliament.

His Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, one of the country’s largest privately held builders, constructed the new parliament building still being readied for the body’s first post-election sitting and has benefitted immensely from the military government’s infrastructure-building program.

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The company is also expected to profit from building the junta’s flagship US$44 billion Eastern Economic Corridor, an investment scheme that envisions big infrastructure-building to upgrade the country’s main export-oriented eastern industrial region.

A Prayut-led coalition government would aim to sustain and ramp up the still inchoate mega-project, replete with airport-linking fast trains and new port designs, while a Peua Thai-Future Forward coalition could be expected to reshape or even stall the program.

Anutin said on the campaign trail that he would not vote Prayut to the premiership, but analysts say his political calculus may have changed with PPRP’s apparent surprising success at the polls. A royal remark could also influence his decision, some analysts say, noting his personal ties to King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in a procession to transfer the royal relics and ashes of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej from the crematorium to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in a procession for late King Bhumibol Adulyadej to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, October 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

In a surprise address on the eve of the election, the king urged Thai voters to select “good” over “bad people” people who could cause post-election chaos, reference to a speech once made by his widely revered father, deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

While the vague royal remark did not point to any particular political side, analysts note that Prayut and his PPRP ran largely on a peace and stability platform that underscored the risks of a return to the confrontational politics that led to his 2014 Peua Thai-toppling coup.

Peua Thai has so far played by the junta’s election rules, including a redrawing of constituencies, a new party list system, and free speech restrictions on the campaign trail that all conspired against it winning another landslide win.

The party’s nominal leader, self-exiled, criminally convicted former ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said in a regular weekly Podcast on Monday after the election that poor Thais should have “hope” and “not give up”, in a folksy long-winding chat about technology, poverty and development.

In a more confrontational op-ed in the New York Times, Thaksin wrote that the election was “rigged” and that “knowing how the junta operates, it’s impossible not to suspect serious interference.”

The sharply worded, smartly written editorial concluded saying: “More than anything, Thailand should have a government that reflects the will of the people, not the will of the junta. This is a terrible, and sad, day for my country.”

However, the ex-leader’s perceived strategic missteps ahead of the election, seen in one of his aligned party’s February 8 bid to nominate Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate, may ultimately cost his side power.

Thaksin Shinawatra welcomes Princess Ubolratana to the wedding of Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn “Ing” Shinawatra at a hotel in Hong Kong, March 22, 2019. Photo: Twitter

That same day, the king deemed her candidacy as “extremely inappropriate” in an unprecedented national address, resulting in her disqualification and the Thai Raksa Chat’s party’s eventual EC-ordered dissolution.

Social media was abuzz at the time with accusations that Thaksin was playing politics in the monarchy, a popular refrain among his royal establishment critics.

Vajiralongkorn’s pre-election “bad people” message, meanwhile, came the day after Ubolratana presided over Thaksin’s daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong, replete with photos circulated virally on social media of the ex-premier and princess in full embrace in a swish hotel parking lot.

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