Thailand's pro-army party leads in election; results delayed

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
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General election in Thailand

Uttama Savanayana, Palang Pracharat Party leader, holds a news conference during the general election in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A pro-military party was leading in Thailand's first election since a 2014 coup, with the unofficial result delayed until Monday afternoon likely to indicate whether junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha can gain enough seats to remain prime minister.

The Election Commission had been scheduled to announce the unofficial results Sunday night for the 500-seat lower House of Representatives but later said it was delayed until Monday, without giving a reason.

But with Prayuth's Palang Pracharat party all but guaranteed the support of the junta-appointed upper house, the Senate, under new electoral rules the junta drafted, it looked in a good position to keep Prayuth in office five years after he overthrew an elected government.

With 93 percent of overall votes counted, the Election Commission reported Palang Pracharat was leading with 7.64 million votes.

Trailing with 7.16 million votes was Pheu Thai, a party linked to the self-exiled ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose loyalists have won every election since 2001.

Palang Pracharat leader Uttama Savanayana cautioned the final results were not yet in but he seemed confident.

"We are pleased," Uttama said. "As for discussion with other parties about forming the next government, we haven't got to that stage yet."

The numbers released were for the popular vote, but these did not reflect parliamentary constituency seats that would ultimately be won. Pheu Thai could still win the lion's share of these because of its concentrated popularity in the north and northeast of the country.

Pheu Thai was on track to win at least 129 seats and Palang Pracharat at least 102 seats, based on a Reuters tally of the partial results of the 350 constituency seats contested.

Another 150 "party seats" will be allocated under a complex formula that favors smaller parties and is based on the total number of votes cast.

The strong showing by the pro-junta Palang Pracharat prompted dismay among many voters who had hoped that the poll would loosen the grip on power that traditional elites and the military have held in a country that has one of the highest measures of inequality in the world.

The Election Commission chairman said turnout was 66 percent, based on 90 percent of the vote counted.

At Pheu Thai's headquarters in Bangkok, the mood fluctuated from cheerful to quiet disbelief.

"I didn't think this is likely. I don't think this is what the people wanted," said Pheu Thai supporter Polnotcha Chakphet.

Pheu Thai leader Viroj Pao-in told reporters there had been some reports of vote-buying, though he stopped short of questioning the overall results.

ROYAL ROLE

The royal family, which wields great influence and commands the devotion of millions of Thais, played a part in the election though how far it influenced the outcome was unclear.

On the eve of the vote, King Maha Vajiralongkorn made an unexpected and cryptic statement, urging voters to put "good people" in power and to prevent "bad people from ... creating chaos".

His message was a departure from the approach of his late father, who died in 2016: in his latter years, the former king usually kept a distance between the monarchy and politics.

Although the king did not refer to any of the sides in the election race, there was speculation on social media that it was a coded reference to main political factions - broadly the middle class and urban establishment, who identify with the monarchy and the military, and their pro-Thaksin opponents.

King Vajiralongkorn also weighed in on electoral affairs last month after a startling turn of events when a pro-Thaksin party nominated Princess Ubolratana, the king's sister, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Within hours, the king issued a statement saying her candidacy was "inappropriate" and she was disqualified.

Still, the connection between the princess and Thaksin persisted in voters' minds, particularly after they were seen hugging on Friday at the wedding of his daughter in Hong Kong.

"We had a lot of dramas in the last hours before the election," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University told Reuters. "Thaksin overplayed with a royal involvement and that was countered by his opponent."

DECK STACKED FOR MILITARY

Thailand has been racked for the past 15 years by crippling street protests both by Thaksin's opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.

Thaksin was thrown out by the army in 2006 and a government that his sister led by ousted in 2014.

Sunday's election was to determine the make-up of parliament's 500-seat House of Representatives. The lower house and the upper house, the junta-appointed Senate, will together select the next prime minister.

Critics have said a new, junta-devised electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent Pheu Thai from returning to power.

The provision means Prayuth's Palang Pracharat and allies have to win only 126 seats in the House, while Pheu Thai and its potential "democratic front" partners would need 376.

The non-aligned Democrat Party, which many had thought could hold the balance of power, appeared to have been deserted by many voters. Its leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced his resignation within hours of the polls closing.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Kay Johnson and Aye Min Thant, Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by John Chalmers)