Thais went to the polls today in national elections billed as a major step toward full democracy, and provisional results pointed to fragmentation that would lead to another coalition government and the likely continuation of strong military influence in Thailand's politics.
State-run Radio Thailand said the three-party coalition of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda captured 221 seats in the 324-seat House of Representatives. The centrist Social Action Party of former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj emerged the biggest winner, taking 92 seats. The military-dominated Thai Nation and the centrist Democrat Party, the other two coalition partners, won 73 seats and 56 seats respectively.
Kukrit, the Social Action Party leader, earlier today asked Prem, a retired Army general, to remain in office and form the next government. Prem did not immediately respond to the request which was apparently aimed at assuaging the military.
Kukrit ruled out becoming prime minister himself, stressing Prem's acceptability as a compromise choice between the major political parties and the military.
Although the 71-year-old Kukrit and his political allies had campaigned against the military's role in politics, he moderated his position in the past few days calling for meetings with military leaders to ensure "stability" after the elections.
The Army commander in chief, Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek, said he was willing to meet with Kukrit if it was for "the benefit and stability of the country."
The military supreme commander, Gen. Saiyud Kherdphol, yesterday sought to allay fears of a coup after the election, the first national poll since 1979. He vowed that the military would not "turn the tables won politicians" following the voting. He said "everybody wants this country to have democratic rule and therefore must support the new government so that it may last its full four-year-term." Besides, he said, "frequent elections are a waste of money."
Arthit and key military supporters have been at odds with the main political parties since a parliamentary showdown last month over the Army's dominant role in Thai politics.
Despite strong military pressure, the parliament narrowly voted to go ahead with constitutional provisions reducing the powers of the appointed, military-dominated Senate, forbidding civil servants, including military officers, from holding political posts and introducing a new voting system for the national elections.
But the Army made up part of the loss when Prem dissolved Parliament and called a snap election before the new voting system was to go into effect on April 22.
This means that today's voting was held according to the old system, which has favored smaller parties and allowed the military to exert great influence on the fragmented political scene.
Contesting the 324 seats were 1,450 candidates representing 14 political parties, plus another 412 candidates running as independents. Two candidates were killed in pre-election violence.
Political observers expect that with the parliament divided among a number of parties, the Army will make a fresh bid after the election to push through constitutional amendments preserving its political powers.