When Thais went to the polls last Sunday for the first time since a military coup in 2014, they were widely expected to vote enthusiastically for a return to civilian-led government. Yet the preliminary result of the March 24 poll presented a surprise -- and controversial -- victory for conservative forces bent on prolonging military-backed rule.
Thailand has long experienced cycles of military intervention followed by a return of sovereignty to parliament. In theory, the goal of the military junta installed after the peaceful coup was no different. But this time, the generals were extra careful: they spent five years engineering new rules to ensure no single party could win a decisive majority.
After much stalling, Thais were eventually presented with what appeared to be political choices, but the mixed system of constituency and party list votes effectively diffused the strength of popular and established political parties and skewed the results in favor of newly-formed military-backed platforms.
The principal target of this exercise was exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Pheu Thai party, which has consistently won commanding majorities in the 500-seat parliament since 2001. Thaksin's populist policies and market-opening inclinations alienated the twin pillars of power in Thailand: the conservative royalist elite and a small group of mostly Thai-Chinese families who own the country's largest conglomerates and financial institutions, protected from outside competition.
And although the powerful constitutional monarchy is formally above politics, there was a clear indication of support for the anti-Thaksin forces, which organized repeated protests against governments led by Thaksin or members of his family, that culminated in military interventions in 2006 and 2014.
Even so, in the lead-up to the March 24 poll, all the indications were that Thaksin's Pheu Thai was on track to win a commanding majority. The vote tally, yet to be confirmed, has the party winning 7.23 million votes and the largest number of constituency seats -- 138.
However, with 7.69 million votes based on 95% of the votes counted, the military-backed Palang Pracharat party, formed just months ahead of the polls, appeared to have won slightly more of the popular vote. It won fewer constituency seats -- 97 -- but was in a position to win more party-list seats.
The Thai Election Commission took the unusual decision to suspend the count before it was completed on election night, generating anger at Pheu Thai's headquarters, where the party's candidate for prime minister, Sudarat Keyuraphan, later said there were electoral irregularities. Former Prime Minister Thaksin went further, declaring in a New York Times Op-Ed that the election was rigged.
If the finally tally turns out this way it means that effectively nothing has changed. The military establishment, supported by the business tycoons, civil servants and the palace, will harness 250 unelected senators appointed by the king to cobble together a coalition with an overall majority across the upper and lower house.
In addition to the confusing rules, a last-minute intervention by King Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his father in 2016, may have tipped the scales against Pheu Thai. On the eve of the election, the king, who will be formally crowned before the new government takes office in early May, indicated that voters should choose only "good people" who serve the interests of peace and stability -- a phrase that perhaps not coincidentally was the campaign theme of the army-backed party, which supports coup leader former general Prayuth Chan-ocha for prime minister.
Where does all this leave the Thai people, who have spent the past decade enduring a cycle of violent protest, military rule, and economic decline? It was hard to guess from the campaign, which was muted and marred by the paucity of accurate polling. One big surprise was the performance of a brand-new party led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a telegenic heir to an auto-parts business empire; his Future Forward Party won the third highest number of votes and more than 80 seats. Future Forward's unabashed anti-military stance has the generals worried and Thanathorn may be disqualified on a formality by the constitutional court, rendering uncertain the future of his upstart party.
Although detailed analysis of voting patterns is yet to come, it also seems that in addition to young voters demanding change, as reflected in Future Forward's surge, there was something of a conservative wave, especially among older voters. Meanwhile, as before, for some people, money and promises of amnesty or position were allegedly effective inducements.
There were numerous allegations of irregularities on polling day, ranging from videos of military personnel watching over subordinates as they voted, to constituencies which showed higher voter tallies than the number of registered voters. The Election Commission presented a poor defense, blaming mistakes on human error and reports of hacking from outside the country. Social media pilloried the commission; at one point the top trending in the global Twitter sphere was "the Election Commission is broken," (in Thai).
Nothing is yet certain. Pheu Thai has declared it will try to form a coalition government, although it will be a challenge to come up with the 376 seats needed. The military-backed party Palanpracharat also invited partners to join a coalition government, and both sides were frantically horse-trading in the background.
Final results may not be confirmed until after the May 4-6 coronation, leaving space for argument, protest, and negotiation. The delay may have been a deliberate move to establish a firebreak that would allow time for inducing politicians, starved of livelihoods for the past five years, to join the establishment train.
Neither is it certain that Prayuth, if he is appointed prime minister, can lead a stable government. The 250 unelected senators he will rely on for an overall majority, cannot vote for the budget nor in no-confidence motions tabled in the lower house. Observers see another election within the year, if the army allows it.
Such uncertainty leaves Thailand little better off after elections than before. Thailand's democratic credentials are weaker than ever; the army remains saddled with backing a government of dubious popularity, Thaksin is still confined to sniping from the sidelines, and Future Forward's leader is threatened with a ban. More disturbing, it is not clear who could offer alternative leadership.
All of this would seem to present a formidable challenge to a new monarch. But there are some in Thailand who consider that King Vajiralongkorn, like his late father King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the height of his long reign, may not be unhappy with a political system which looks more democratic, but is characterized by weak coalitions and fractious leadership -- allowing the monarchy to remain unchallenged as the foundation of national stability and identity. While this formula has served Thailand well in a region increasingly beset by problems of identity politics and religious extremism, the rigidly conservative system, with the army enforcing conformity, makes for a constrained, undynamic society. As many thousands of younger Thais tweeted the day of the election: they no longer want to be told how to behave.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."