BANGKOK — Thailand’s main opposition party took an early lead with half the votes counted from Sunday’s general election, touted as a pivotal chance for change nine years after incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha first came to power in a 2014 coup.
The Pheu Thai Party was leading with 23% of the 400 seats contested in the direct race for the House of Representatives, and a 21% share of the seats allocated in a separate nationwide ballot for the 100 members elected by proportional representation.
The returns so far were a good sign for democratization, said Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.
“This is people saying that we want change … They are saying that they could no longer take it. The people are very frustrated. They want change, and they could achieve it,” she said.
She cautioned, however, that the situation remains “very unpredictable,” and that the Election Commission could unilaterally affect the results. In the past, it has used its authority to disqualify opposition parties or otherwise cripple challenges to the conservative establishment.
The junior opposition Move Forward Party was running a strong second, with 21% of the constituency seats and 24% for the party list. Prayuth’s United Thai Nation Party held the sixth spot in the constituency vote with 8% of the total, but third in the party preference with 10%. The three parties were considered the most likely to head a new government.
Based on the partial figures, Pheu Thai was projected to capture 116 seats in the constituency vote, Move Forward 113 , and United Thai Nation 19.
Pheu Thai, headed by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, had been widely predicted to win at least a healthy plurality in the 500-member lower House, where 400 lawmakers are elected directly.
Prayuth has been blamed for a stuttering economy, shortcomings in addressing the pandemic and thwarting democratic reforms, a particular sore point with younger voters.
But who heads the next government won’t by decided by Sunday’s vote alone. The prime minister will be selected in July in a joint session of the House and the 250-seat Senate. The winner must secure at least 376 votes and no party is likely to do that on its own.
Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties linked to populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by an army coup in 2006. Paetongtarn Shinawatra is his daughter. The government of her aunt, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011, was toppled in the coup led by Prayuth.
Pheu Thai won the most seats in the last election in 2019, but its archrival, the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, succeeded in cobbling together a coalition with Prayuth as prime minister. It relied on unanimous support from the Senate, whose members were appointed by by the military government after Prayuth’s coup and share its conservative outlook.
Prayuth is running for reelection, although the military this year has split its support between two parties. Prayuth is backed by the United Thai Nation Party; his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, another former general, is the standard bearer for Palang Pracharath.
Analysts say Pheu Thai will have to tread carefully after Sunday’s election in choosing possible coalition partners.
Its ideological bedfellow, The Move Forward Party, is also seeking to clip the military’s wings. In the incomplete vote count, it was leading in 30 of the 33 constituencies in Bangkok. But its outspoken support for minor reforms of the monarchy, while winning younger voters, antagonizes conservatives to whom the institution is sacrosanct, and scares off other possible coalition partners.
Many believe that Pheu Thai could look in the other direction for a partner, by cutting a deal with the Palang Pracharath Party and its leader, Prawit, who is less associated with the 2014 coup and the hard line Prayuth has pursued.