BANGKOK -- After five years of junta rule, Thailand today went to the polls.
Voting officially ended at 5 p.m. local time, and the counting began soon afterward. The Election Commission of Thailand reported no major irregularities. The commission earlier in the week said unofficial results from at least 95% of the polling stations should be ready by 8 p.m.
The election was held to fill 500 lower-house seats, 150 on a proportional representation basis. The other 350 representatives will be directly elected from single-seat constituencies. The Election Commission on Sunday announced that there are over 51 million eligible voters and that 92,320 polling stations had been set up for the election.
The general elections are Thailand's first legitimate polls since 2011. In 2014, voting was disrupted by protesters angry with the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The results of that election were later nullified by the Constitutional Court. Amid the political turmoil, military generals pulled off a coup.
On Sunday, Thai voters had their chance to hand the junta a verdict.
Soon after voting closed, local media began announcing results of voter surveys they had conducted ahead of election day. A Suan Dusit poll put the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party at 173 seats, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party at 96, the Democrat Party at 88, the Future Forward Party at 49 and Bhumjaithai at 40.
A poll conducted by Thai Research Center suggests similar results. It has Pheu Thai at 163 seats, Palang Pracharat at 96, the Democrats at 77, Bhumjaithai at 59 and Future Forward at 40.
Both surveys indicate that the combined projected seat total of Thaksin-linked parties and Future Forward might fall short of a 251-seat majority in the lower house. Pre-election speculation had the two parties possibly coming together in a coalition after voting.
The surveys also suggest the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party is likely to come up short of enough seats to choose the prime minister.
As for Bhumjaithai, it has served as a swing bloc in parliament. It supports a four-day workweek, the legalization of ride-hailing services and cannabis farming.
The current government took over after the military seized power in May 2014. It went on to restore peace, law and order.
It also boosted the economy by pushing mega investment projects such as the Eastern Economic Corridor. During its watch, exports and tourist arrivals swelled. But at the same time disparity widened. Thailand recently became the world's most unequal society, with the top 1% of the population holding 67% of the wealth.
The pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party nominated junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as its sole prime ministerial candidate. It seeks to continue Prayuth's policies.
"I would like to invite all Thais to come out to exercise your right and vote for the one you want to vote for," Prayuth told reporters after casting his ballot on Sunday morning. "This is the right to choose the country's future by your own hand."
The Pheu Thai Party consists of supporters of Thaksin, a billionaire who fled the country in 2008 during court proceedings that would find him guilty of corruption. The former prime minister has continued to influence Thai politics from his self-imposed exile.
His party has strongholds in the north and northeast, and many poor farmers make up his base.
The Future Forward party has also put down stakes in the anti-junta camp. It is led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 40-year-old billionaire-turned-politician. The party is especially popular among young Thais.
The Democrat Party, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has strong support in southern provinces and urban areas.
Abhisit also came in front of reporters on Sunday morning after casting his ballot. "I hope to see a lot of people exercising their rights to vote. ... So please come out and vote," he said.
Political analysts and opinion polls suggest that the elections will result in no party gaining a lower house majority. This will likely give way to horse-trading among the parties that finish comparatively well and are open to cobbling together a coalition.
Regardless of the vote count, the junta has already established itself as a power broker. According to the new constitution, the next prime minister will be chosen by a majority of parliament's 750 members. Thailand will also have a 250-seat senate, with the members chosen by the junta.
The senators can be expected to support the junta, which needs 126 seats in today's election to bring back Prayuth as prime minister.
While this is a path to retain the prime minister's job, it does not secure lawmaking power, much of which will reside in the lower house. If a Prayuth-headed government is to smoothly implement policies, it needs to win 251 seats.
An anti-junta government must put together 376 lower house seats -- a tall order -- if it is to wield real power.
Between these scenarios is a recipe for political deadlock. And in Thailand's deeply divided and unequal society, the chances for such an outcome are not slim.
There are already fears that this sort of result could bring back unrest and eventually lead to another military coup.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, has suggested the possibility that King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun could step in to play a constructive role in reconciling Thailand's political divisions.
The King, in a rare move, issued a statement on Saturday night saying Thai people must "let good people rule," citing a speech by his father in 1989. He demanded civil servants, soldiers and government officials to keep stability in national security.
The King has already demonstrated his supreme power. In early February, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, a Thaksin ally, registered Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate. The news, which came in the morning, shocked the country. But that night the King issued a royal command stating that the nomination was unconstitutional.
The Princess had given up her title decades ago, but her younger brother said she remains part of the royal family and that in the country's constitutional monarchy the family should remain above politics.
Thai Raksa Chart immediately withdrew the nomination, but it had already sealed its fate: The Constitutional Court earlier this month ordered the party of 282 candidates to disband.
According to Asian Network for Free Elections, or Anfrel, the only independent international election observer accredited by the Election Commission of Thailand, turnout two hours before voting booths closed was 50% in some areas and 60% in others. Anfrel monitored 30 of more than 70 provinces across the country.
Rohana Hettiarachchi, head of Anfrel's Thailand mission, told the Nikkei Asian Review: "The turnout in the provinces we monitored was not as high as we were expecting. But there are still two hours left, so voters may show up."
Asia regional correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok contributed to this story.