Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Hong Kong. Thaksin faces a raft of corruption charges in his home country. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

Sitting in a luxury hotel suite, its balcony overlooking the skyscrapers lining Victoria Harbor, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra watched results from his country’s first election since a 2014 military coup ousted his sister’s government stream in.

He called his inner circle and polling experts, Thaksin recalled in an interview with The Washington Post. The numbers did not seem right, he said, with the Pheu Thai Party faring far less robustly than expected. Pheu Thai is the latest iteration of the political movement he founded that has dominated Thai elections since the early 2000s.

There were reports of “some vote buying in front of the poll stations,” he said, sitting in the same hotel suite on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula. Reports came in, too, of a ballot box that had disappeared and been replaced and districts where more ballots were counted than there were voters who turned up.

“How can that happen? Is this a rigged election?” Thaksin said.

The vote, he added, has been not only tampered with but “robbed” from the people. 

Thailand voted Sunday in an election that was widely seen as a referendum on whether elected politicians such as Thaksin are better for the country than military rule and the promise of stability it brings. 

Since Thaksin’s rise to power in the early 2000s, two factions have dominated Thai politics — the “red shirts,” who revere him and his allies, delivering them landslide victories at the ballot box, and the “yellow shirts,” who despise the Thaksin camp and its populist policies. 

Thaksin has lived in self-
imposed exile for 13 years, mostly in Dubai, a fugitive facing a raft of corruption charges in his home country.

But the 69-year-old still looms large in Thai politics, believed to be a behind-the-scenes dealmaker who continues to have significant sway over his allies and supporters.

On this occasion, however, it appears that his camp does not hold the cards. 

Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai has not garnered the vote numbers needed to hold a decisive parliamentary majority and form a government — the only way to challenge built-in advantages engineered by the junta to hold on to power. 

Furious negotiations and competing news conferences were ongoing Monday afternoon as Pheu Thai and the army-linked Palang Pracharat both claimed they had the support of the people to form a government. Preliminary results from the 350 constituency races, delayed for hours before they were released Monday, showed that Pheu Thai had won the most seats but that Palang Pracharat had clinched most of the popular vote.

Full, official results are not expected until May 9.

The military, Thaksin contends, simply wants to “continue their power for the next 20 years.” He said it was inexplicable that Palang Pracharat, a party formed expressly to keep the military in power, could have won fair and square. 

There were “irregularities which never happened before in the previous election,” he said. “That was [the military’s] intention.” 

Allegations of inconsistencies abounded. In some districts, twice as many ballots were collected as actual voters who turned up. One user noted on social media that her dead grandmother appeared on her district’s list of eligible voters, while another noted that his 7-year-old daughter was on the voter list. A vast majority of these inconsistencies were reported in traditional Pheu Thai strongholds.

The election commission has received over 100 complaints and is investigating. 

But critics charge that the Thaksin camp itself made grave errors ahead of the election that were almost impossible to overcome as the vote drew close. 

Central to these was a decision by Thai Raksa Chart, a party allied with Thaksin, to put forth a Thai princess as its candidate for prime minister — a previously unheard-of move that could have delivered reconciliation to Thailand but backfired spectacularly. The Thai king called the move “extremely inappropriate,” and the party — which had chosen to field 175 candidates — was dissolved soon after. 

Pheu Thai had fielded only 250 candidates out of the possible 350, hoping to leave Thai Raksa Chart to win in the other constituencies and be part of a coalition government. 

In the days before the vote, Thaksin held a lavish wedding for his youngest daughter in Hong Kong. Among those in attendance was the aforementioned princess, Ubolratana Rajakanya. They were photographed in an embrace and took selfies. 

Thaksin said he was not trying to send any particular message by having Ubolratana in attendance. She was attending, he said, as a friend who has known Thaksin and his family for three decades. 

“When we see each other, she [is] Westernized; I’m also Westernized. That’s the way we say hello as a Westerner,” he said about their hug, which was criticized by some on social media as inappropriate.

On the eve of the vote, the Thai king, in an usual message broadcast across television stations, urged voters to pick “good people” over “bad” ones who would cause chaos — borrowing a phrase from his late father, the beloved king Bhumibol Adulyadej. 

Analysts viewed the message as directed against the Thaksin camp, which royalists associate with the unrest plaguing Thai politics in recent years. 

“It was like the royal statement almost canceled out that wedding reception,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The military has tried to show that it is the only force that can keep Thaksin away.” 

Thaksin expressed regret that he continues to be viewed as a boogeyman by Thai elites and conservatives, saying he has tried to do only what is good for his country. He said he has no plans to return to Thailand.

“I don’t care whether I go back or not, but I do care about the livelihood of the people and the dignity of my own country,” Thaksin said. “I’m a simple man and very human. I really want to benefit the country, in any way or any sense.” 

“But,” he added, “If [the military] thinks that as a Thai, that as a former prime minister, I am an enemy, if that’s the way they think, that is another story that we cannot do anything” about.

Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.