Pro-military party's surprise lead in Thai election, partial results show

24 March 2019, 01:07 | Updated: 25 March 2019, 08:48

Thailand's pro-military party has taken an unexpected lead in the first general election since a coup in 2014.

With 93% of votes counted, the Phalang Pracharat party was first with 7.64 million votes, according to the country's Election Commission.

"We are pleased with the results so far," said Phalang Pracharat leader Uttama Savanayana.

Its vote total falls short of the numbers required for an outright majority in parliament.

Trailing with 7.16 million votes was Pheu Thai, a party linked to the self-exiled ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose loyalists have won every election since 2001.

Despite the seemingly higher level of support than expected, the vote total falls short of the numbers required for an outright majority in parliament.

While junta supporters are leading in the popular vote, the number of parliamentary constituency seats each party has won hasn't been officially confirmed.

The results of the top two parties are expected to be close, with Pheu Thai taking the lion's share.

It means the country could now face several weeks of haggling among political parties before a potentially unstable coalition government is formed.

Even without a majority of MPs, the junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, will likely try to reclaim the premiership under a coalition government with the support of the senate.

Changes to the constitution under the junta have made it exceptionally difficult for opposition parties to take control.

The new rules mean that the 500 members of the lower house are elected, while the 250 members of the senate have been handpicked by the military.

The prime minister is chosen by the combined votes of both houses.

In order to seal the deal, General Chan-ocha would only need 126 votes from the lower house if all the senators back him.

Thai politics is bitterly divided, with 12 successful coups d'état since 1932.

Opponents say the new system ensures the military will maintain its grip on power.

Phongthep Thepkanjana was deputy prime minister in the last democratically elected government.

He has again been campaigning for Pheu Thai.

He told Sky News he believes the military leaders deliberately stifled any chance of real change.

"This election will not achieve true democracy, let alone lasting democracy, because even if political parties on the democratic side win the election in combination, the mechanisms created and controlled by the junta can still prevent them from forming a coalition government," he said.

In addition, several groups and their members are facing legal action after the election which could see their parties dissolved.

Around 51 million Thais were eligible to vote in the election which ultimately pitched the military and its supporters against the former ruling Shinawatra family in what some defined as a battle between democracy and legitimised military rule.

Voter turnout was initially estimated to be around 66%, much lower than the 80% expected.

Concerns have also been raised about the integrity of the poll after 6% of votes were disqualified, according to the Election Commission.

Pheu Thai's secretary general, Phumtham Wechayachai, questioned the irregularities and said they wanted to inspect the spoiled ballots.

Human Rights Watch has also probed the fairness of the vote, with senior researcher for Thailand, Sunai Phasuk, saying: "The reports that we have heard back are very alarming. There were reports of vote buying, there were reports of irregularities in vote count and tabulation, there were reports about intimidation of opposition parties members."

As the provisional results showing a military lead trickled in #prayforthailand trended on Twitter in Thailand, followed later by Thai-language hashtags that translated as "Election Commission screw-up" and "cheating the election".

The long-awaited election has already taken its first scalp as the leader of the Democratic party, Abhisit Vejjajiva resigned following the party's poor performance.

Thailand's Election Commission chairman said the unofficial results of the general election will be announced later on Monday.

Official results will be confirmed by 9 May.