Thailand has proved to be more politically polarised than ever after the first election in eight years ended in a neck and neck race between the pro-military party and the opposition pro-democracy party.
Going to the polls for the first time since the military took power in a coup in 2014, Thais were given the choice between pro-regime parties, who supported the continuation of junta rule through the ballot box, and pro-democracy parties that were fundamentally opposed to the military and wanted to radically change the direction of the country.
Yet, by Sunday night, the results were so close that the election commission cancelled the expected official announcement of the outcome until the morning.
Preliminary results, with 93% of the votes counted, showed a narrow win for the pro-democracy Pheu Thai, with an estimated 129 seats, compared with 117 seats for the pro-military Phalang Pracharat.
It means that neither party achieved the 250 seats needed to form a majority government in their own right and is therefore likely to lead to a scramble on both sides to form a large enough coalition with other smaller parties.
However, the result was far better for the military than most had predicted and a blow to those who hoped this election would bring in a new era for Thai politics.
Under the five years of military rule, Thailand’s economy has floundered, with the gap between rich and poor growing ever wider and wages remaining stagnant. However, it appears the lure of stability and a desire to avoid the turbulent protests and unrest that preceded the military coup in 2014, proved to bea priority for many Thai voters.
“I love the way Thailand is right now, without any fighting, so while I think it is important we can come out and vote, I don’t think change is what is needed,” said Pearl Somboonpakron, a supporter of Phalang Pracharat. “We need to preserve our country and our monarchy as it is now.”
It was a particularly disappointing result for Pheu Thai, the party founded by now-exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which has won every election this century and had been expected to claim an easy victory.
The success of the pro-junta party Phalang Pracharat will probably allow a pro-military coalition to form the government, bringing back the current head of the junta, Prayut Chan-ocha, as prime minister.
The system is already skewed in favour of continuing military rule. The constitution, drawn up by the military in 2016, gave the junta the power to appoint all 250 senators in the upper house, who then get a vote on who becomes prime minister.
The junta has already described the senate as “controllable”. In order to get Prayut voted back in as prime minister by parliament, it is likely it would need only a dozen MPs from other parties.
Speaking on Sunday night at the Phalang Pracharat headquarters, the party’s leader, Uttama Savanayana, said: “Thank you for the support. I can’t speak about the coalition right now; we need to wait until we have 100% of the results. I just quickly spoke with prime minister Prayut. He’s glad and thanks you for working hard over the past five months.”
The polarised nature of Thai politics, particularly down generational lines, was evident in the momentous success of the new progressive and radical Future Forward party, which had run on an agenda of constitutional and military reform and whose leader, the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was repeatedly critical and outspoken against the junta.
Flint, 21, a first-time voter, was among those supporting Future Forward and said that while he was “excited to finally use my democratic right to vote” he was not optimistic the election would signal a change for Thailand. “I think people in my generation we really want change, new government, new type of politics,” he said. “But the people in my parent’s generation and older, they still want to continue the old style and to keep the status quo. So there is a big generational gap in Thailand when it comes to politics.”
The early results established Future Forward as the third biggest partywith upwards of 76 seats in parliament. It proved particularly successful in Bangkok, where it won more votes than any other party and caused so much damage to the Democrat party, which had previously always had a stronghold in the Thai capital, that the leader, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, stepped down on Sunday night.
A factor in pushing voters to support the pro-military party may have been an unprecedented royal statement released by the King Maha Vajiralongkorn on the eve of the election. In what many viewed as a dig at the pro-democracy parties, the king urged Thai voters, many of whom are staunchly loyal to the royal family, to support “good people” and prevent “bad people” from gaining power and bringing about chaos.