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Pro-military and pro-democracy camps both claim victory in Thai elections

Thailand's first general election since a military coup five years ago was thrown into disarray on March 25 as two opposition parties alleged cheating. (Video: Reuters)
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BANGKOK — A political party formed to carry on the work of Thailand’s junta appeared to win the largest number of votes in Sunday’s election, though a pro-democracy party looked to have won the most seats — potentially setting the country up for a period of gridlock and negotiations on who will lead the first elected government since the military seized power in a coup five years ago.

Adding to the uncertainty are claims of irregularities and odd results in multiple districts, some showing more ballots collected than actual voters who turned up. 

Unofficial results, with almost all votes counted, showed the army-linked party ahead in the tally, surprising many by narrowly beating the populist Pheu Thai party linked to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an earlier coup in 2006. His movement, aimed at the rural poor and addressing economic inequality, has dominated the polls for two decades.

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By Monday afternoon, Pheu Thai declared it had enough seats to form a coalition government with like-minded parties intent on ending military rule. These would probably include the Future Forward Party, recently launched by a fresh-faced billionaire similarly determined to return governance to elected politicians.

The new party outdid all expectations, coming in third and essentially relegating one of Thailand’s oldest parties into relative irrelevance by clinching a large number of seats in urban Bangkok.

“Pro-democracy parties still have a chance to form a coalition to object the nomination of Prayuth,” said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Future Forward Party’s leader, referring to junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha who is seeking to extend his years at Thailand’s helm. 

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Analysts said, however, that the defiant declarations were probably insufficient to counter the inbuilt advantages the military-linked party has in seeking to form the new government: an unelected bloc of 250 senators that is almost guaranteed to vote alongside junta-linked politicians. 

“However hard Pheu Thai tries, they need 376 out of 500, and they cannot get 376,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It looks like it is going to be a junta-backed government.” 

Sunday’s vote — the first since a coup in 2014 ousted a government run by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra — was held to determine the makeup of Thailand’s parliament. The election was not merely an exercise in picking which parties had better policies or the most qualified candidates, but also a referendum on the fundamental question of whether elected civilian leaders or a military government should lead Thailand, with the monarchy at its center.

Thailand’s legislature has 500 elective seats and 250 unelected senators, handpicked by the junta. Together, they decide who becomes prime minister, chosen by a simple majority. Of the elected lawmakers, 350 are elected in constituency races while the others are chosen by proportional representation.

The jostling and competing claims of victory surfaced in the absence of conclusive results from Thailand’s election commission. Allegations of irregularities have also muddled provisional results.

Only partial results were posted by the election commission Monday afternoon after almost 20 hours of delays. In previous elections, the total vote count and number of seats allocated to each party were announced on election night itself, rather than the next afternoon.

When asked by reporters Sunday night to explain what was taking so long, commission chairman Ittiporn Boonprakong said he did not have a calculator. 

“It is impossible for the election commission to announce official results in a short period of time, because it needs to investigate complaints and concerns on electoral problems in some constituencies,” the commission’s deputy head, Nat Laosisawakul, later said in a Monday news conference.

The initial results, announcing the 350 constituency races, showed Pheu Thai with 137 seats. The military-linked Palang Pracharat had 97, with smaller parties — key to a future coalition — taking the rest. The additional 150 seats, allocated by proportional representation, will be announced at a later date. Official tallies are not expected until May 9. 

The delays have added to suspicion that the election, which was skewed in the junta’s favor from the time it was announced, was rigged even on polling day. Trending Twitter hashtags, which have come to reflect the sentiment of young Thai voters through the election, included a Thai phrase that roughly translates to “cheating the election.”

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In some districts, like the Pheu Thai stronghold of Chiang Rai in the north, the number of ballots tallied was 847,575 — nearly double the 437,145 voters who showed up to vote Sunday. In Nakhon Ratchasima, a major province in the northeast, the numbers of ballots were recorded at 1,753,139 when only 913,575 came to the polls. There were similar reports in at least 10 provinces across Thailand. 

On social media, a voter in Chonburi reported that her dead grandmother’s name appeared on a list of eligible voters at their district’s polling station. Another said his 7-year-old daughter’s name was on the voting list though the minimum voting age in Thailand is 18.

“We don’t feel good about [the irregularities],” said Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai’s leader. “It will affect the trust of international communities and Thai people toward the new government.”

“Our party has obtained fewer parliamentary seats than we originally expected,” she added. “We could foresee this. We’re aware that there is vote buying, abuse of power and electoral fraud.”

The election commission has received more than 100 complaints and says it is investigating.

The 250 unelected senators were a new feature introduced by the ruling junta under a constitution it introduced in 2017 ahead of the election. That bloc will almost certainly vote in line with the army-linked party and will probably select junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister.

Prayuth, who came to power in the 2014 coup, has since attempted to soften his image from a conservative general to a laid-back, suit-wearing politician, and says he is the only one who can deliver stability to Thailand. 

The party that put him forth as a candidate for prime minister says it, too, intends to form the government and believes it will win a majority of elected seats. 

“Getting the most popular votes shows that we were chosen by the silent majority,” said Kobsak Pootrakool, a spokesman for Palang Pracharat. “These votes prove that we are in an appropriate position [to form the new government].”

The votes, he added, are “voices from heaven.” His party, he said, would attempt to form a coalition with “like-minded” parties. 

Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said it was unusual that the largest share of votes went to newer parties, but nevertheless it reflects the deep divisions and polarization in Thai politics.

For decades, Thailand has been caught in an endless political battle between the “red shirts” inspired by Thaksin’s movement and the “yellow shirt” royalists. The red shirts consistently back iterations of Thaksin-linked political parties, delivering landslide election wins, but have been stopped from exercising power by heated protests, corruption charges and accusations of disloyalty to the monarchy.

 In this election, traditional red shirt supporters have in some districts supported Thanathorn’s Future Forward, while many yellow shirts have apparently backed the military party — diametrically opposed movements.

“The votes from one camp don’t swing to the other,” said Stithorn, “No matter what you call this camp, pro-democracy versus pro-military, or progress versus conservative.”

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.

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