(Bloomberg) -- A political party created by Thailand’s ruling military government was leading in the first election since a 2014 coup, putting junta chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha in position to return as prime minister even as opponents questioned the vote’s credibility.
Palang Pracharath won 7.7 million votes with 94 percent counted, according to unofficial results posted on the Election Commission’s Facebook page. Pheu Thai, a political party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, came in second with 7.23 million votes. The Election Commission said on Monday it would announce the winners of 350 constituencies at 4 p.m., after several delays in giving seat totals.
Tallies from local media outlets showed Palang Pracharath winning nearly the number of seats needed to install Prayuth under Thailand’s election rules, even as Thaksin’s allies led the overall count in some surveys. The 250-member Senate appointed by the junta is also likely to back Prayuth, effectively tilting the playing field in favor of the military.
Still, any coalition is likely to be weak and unwieldy, making it difficult to pass legislation in the lower house. Prayuth would need to rely on a range of smaller regional parties to push through key policies, while a pro-democracy bloc consisting of Pheu Thai and Future Forward looked set to form a sizable opposition.
Investors appeared sanguine about the results of the election. The baht strengthened as much as 0.8 percent against the dollar, while the benchmark stock index’s drop was less than the slide in regional peers amid a global selloff.
Questions are being raised about the credibility of the vote and the next administration is likely to be unstable, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the head of Future Forward, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday. The 40-year-old scion of a billionaire family, whose party did surprisingly well, has vowed to rewrite the military-drafted constitution.
“There might be another election, there might be another military intervention,” Thanathorn said. “Everything is still on the table.”
A win for the junta-backed party would amount to a breakthrough for Thailand’s royalist and military elites, who have repeatedly sought to prevent Thaksin and his allies from taking power over the past two decades.
While a Prayuth-led government would continue the junta’s economic policies, including a 1.7 trillion baht ($54 billion) infrastructure program, it also faces questions of legitimacy. Turnout for the election was 66 percent, compared with 75 percent in 2011, according to the Election Commission.
“This will leave the pro-military government with a large, strong opposition that’s led by Pheu Thai and Future Forward -- both staunch critics of the junta,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor in politics at Mahidol University. “It’ll be difficult for them to pass legislation, and Prayuth might not be able to handle that pressure.”
Questions of stability will hang over whichever ruling coalition emerges. Unsettled foreign investors have already pulled out more than $700 million net from Thai stocks and bonds this year amid growth concerns in the export and tourism-reliant economy, the second-largest in Southeast Asia.
Thaksin or his allies have won the most seats in every Thai election since 2001, backed largely by poorer farmers who laud him for providing cheap health care, guaranteed crop prices and cheap loans. Sudarat Keyuraphan, the party’s candidate for prime minister, said Sunday the party with the most seats has the right to form the government first.
“We still stick to this rule and it has been like this in the past,” she told reporters before results came in, adding that she hoped the appointed Senate would respect the votes of Thai citizens.
That was disputed by Uttama Savanayana, Palang Pracharath’s leader, who said any parties that form a coalition first can take power.
To win more votes, the military’s party emulated Thaksin’s populist formula. It proposed lowering taxes, boosting the minimum wage by more than 30 percent, and guaranteeing prices for rubber, rice, and sugar cane. Prayuth had already offered farmers funds for harvesting and provided low-income earners about $10 per month to purchase household staples.
Thaksin’s opponents -- a loose faction of soldiers, bureaucrats and wealthy Bangkok families with royal connections -- have sought to keep him away from Thailand, in part because they view him as a threat to the monarchy. The army ousted Thaksin in 2006, and eight years later Prayuth deposed a government run by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The next prime minister needs 367 votes in the bicameral National Assembly, which consists of the Senate and a 500-member House of Representatives. The Election Commission has until May 9 to submit official results, after which lawmakers will pick a prime minister.
The military-drafted constitution, Thailand’s 20th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, empowers appointed soldiers and bureaucrats at the expense of elected politicians. The rules effectively make it easy for Prayuth to become prime minister: With support from the Senate, he would need another 126 votes in the lower house to stay in power.
Sunday’s election followed one of the longest periods of military rule in Thailand, which has a history of elections followed by coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Bloody street clashes between Thaksin’s supporters and critics have killed dozens over the past decade, deterring tourists and stifling economic growth during the worst of the unrest.
Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand since 2008, when he fled a corruption conviction in the wake of a coup two years earlier. He has denied wrongdoing and says the accusations are political.
More recently Thaksin has sought to show he’s close to the monarchy. A party linked to him nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its prime ministerial candidate, only for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to reject the move. A court later disbanded the party, hurting his election strategy.
Thaksin was photographed in recent days with the princess at his daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong. On the eve of the election, the king issued a rare statement calling on Thais to vote for “good people,” referencing his father Bhumibol Adulyadej, known as Rama IX, who ruled for some seven decades before passing away in 2016.
Thaksin’s appearance with the princess “backfired,” according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
“The last hours of the polls mattered a lot, especially the statement of the palace citing King Rama IX’s words about choosing good people,” Thitinan said. “That was a big last-minute boost for the Palang Pracharath party.”
(Updates with market reaction in the fifth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen.
To contact the reporters on this story: Siraphob Thanthong-Knight in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org;Natnicha Chuwiruch in Bangkok at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org, Tony Jordan
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