BANGKOK, Thailand — Two parties challenging military rule were holding a substantial lead as Thais went to the polls in the most wide-open general election in a decade.
Liberal former tech expert Pita Limjaroenrat, 32, appeared to win the most seats in Sunday’s nationwide elections and is trying to form a coalition to become prime minister, possibly signaling the end of nearly a decade of military dominance of this longtime U.S. ally’s political system.
Mr. Pita’s Move Forward party could share power with a scion of Thailand’s two convicted coup-toppled leaders, so together they can oust the military-dominated government and longtime Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who took power in a 2014 coup.
With 97% of the vote counted, according to the Election Commission of Thailand, Mr. Pita’s Move Forward party was projected to claim 151 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives, and the Pheu Thai party of Paetongtarn Shinawatra was winning another 141 seats, the Associated Press reported. The chamber still faces harsh “screening” by the military’s 250-seat appointed Senate which does not agree with the two civilians’ policies or plans.
This Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation is closely watched and wooed by Washington and Beijing.
Thailand’s friendly diplomatic, commercial, and military balancing act between the U.S. and China is expected to remain unchanged no matter who wins the election.
Early unofficial results indicated Mr. Pita and his liberal, youth-led MFP scored big wins, sometimes outpacing Ms. Paetongtarn’s party, which many pundits here had tapped as the front-runner.
After the polls closed, Mr. Pita said he would discuss formation of a coalition with Ms. Paetongtarn.
MFP favors “demilitarizing” Thai politics, ending military conscription, and replacing the Senate’s 250 appointees with elected politicians.
Also displaying some victories in early unofficial results is another possible prime minister and coalition partner, Anutin Charnvirakul, who leads the Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) party – famous mostly for its strong position in favor of legalizing cannabis last year.
Ms. Paetongtarn, part of the famed Shinawatra clan whose members have dominated past civilian-led governments and clashed repeatedly with the military, would benefit from BJT’s support, but she strongly opposes legalization and wants to restrict cannabis to medical use.
Ms. Paetongtarn made history of sorts when she gave birth to a baby boy just weeks before the vote was held, campaigning while in the late stages of her pregnancy.
Any emerging coalition would likely include Ms. Paetongtarn and her Pheu Thai running the government’s most important ministries, but including some of her coalition partners’ policies.
During the next few months, the elected House and junta-appointed Senate are expected to struggle to form a new government and name a prime minister.
Some senators favor the reelection of relatively unpopular Prime Minister Prayuth, who heads the new United Thai Nation (UTN) party.
Other senators want to upgrade his friendly rival Deputy Prime Minister and ex-general, Prawit Wongsuwan, to become prime minister.
Mr. Prawit, who leads his new Palang Pracha Rath Party (PPRP), had a long tenure in the military and is a powerful political wheeler-dealer.
“The military continues to pose a threat to the realization of true democracy,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior columnist at Khaosod English media, said Sunday.
“In the end, no matter what today’s results, it’s clear that the election was never fair from the very beginning as 250-junta appointed senators will take part, along with 500 elected Members of Parliament, to vote for the next prime minister,” Mr. Pravit wrote.
“The former junta-camp has already bagged a third of the votes for the next prime minister in their pocket, long before the first voter cast his or her vote this morning,” Mr. Pravit said.
Mr. Prayuth’s junta wrote a new, more politically restrictive, constitution which created Sunday’s lopsided election, restricting voters to choose only Parliament’s 500-member House of Representatives.
If a civilian coalition emerges, it could become vulnerable to the Constitutional Court which previously dissolved political parties and banned political leaders for violating the charter, even in relatively minor, technical ways.
MFP’s Mr. Pita is currently being targeted by critics who want the Constitutional Court to determine if his previous financial investments conflict with his political activity.
If a coalition party or prime minister is convicted and dissolved by the court, the coalition would collapse without a majority in Parliament.
Or the military could block a possible majority vote for a civilian coalition, and have the 250-seat Senate unite with pro-military parties in the House, and declare a minority government.
A majority opposition however could paralyze a minority government in Parliament by not supporting its legislation and demanding a “no confidence” vote.
About 52 million Thais were qualified to vote for a total of 70 parties to fill the House which later joins the Senate and names a prime minister – expected months from now.
Responding to Thailand’s latest public expression of coup anxiety, Army Chief Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae told reporters on Thursday, “I can assure you that what occurred in the past, the chance is zero now.”
“We have learned many lessons from the past,” he said, according to the Bangkok Post.
“We have reached a point where democracy has to go ahead. Everyone should be mindful and avoid what should not be done,” the army chief said.
Gen. Narongpan retires on Sept. 30.
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