BANGKOK -- The pro-junta Palang Pracharat party on Monday emerged from Thailand's first general election in eight years as the clear front-runner to form the next government.
So far, Palang Pracharat has not won enough seats to bring back junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister by itself, but it will be able to achieve this goal if it can form a coalition with other parties.
According to unofficial results announced by the Election Commission of Thailand on Monday, Palang Pracharat candidates won in 97 of the country's 350 lower house constituencies.
The lower house will also include 150 members who gain their seats based on the percentage of votes their parties won nationwide. The election authority said it will not reveal the distribution of these party list seats until the results become final. But around 19 Palang Pracharat members are expected to make their way into the legislature through this process, based on calculations by local media.
This gives the party 116 seats, short of the 126 it needs to put its prime ministerial candidate, Prayuth, in office.
According to the election commission's announcement and local media projections, Pheu Thai Party, an instrument of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is on course to win a total of 137 seats. The fledgling Future Forward Party, led by 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made a strong debut with a likely 81 seats.
Bhumjaithai also performed well; it is expected to seat 51 candidates. The 54-year-old Democrat Party, meanwhile, suffered a devastating defeat, finishing with possibly just 52 seats. Party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resigned from his position on Sunday night after it became clear Democrat candidates would fall far short of winning 100 seats, as Abhisit had promised.
The current constitution states that the prime minister should be chosen by a majority of the 500 lower house members and 250 upper house members. Since almost all the senators will be appointed by the junta, Palang Pracharat has a clear advantage in forming the next government.
Although the election was meant to showcase the return of democracy to Southeast Asia's second largest economy, the results may allow the de facto continuation of junta policies.
The path ahead will be marked either by political roadblocks or compromises. Although the junta will likely be able to bring back Prayuth and form a minority government, it might have to form a small coalition to do so. But Palang Pracharat will need a large-scale coalition, one involving several parties, if it is to hold sway over a majority of lower house legislators.
This will be essential to whatever government emerges since lawmaking power largely rests in the chamber. The majority needed to pass bills is 251.
"We would work with parties that will not lead to any problem that would damage the country," Palang Pracharat leader Uttama Savanayana told the Nikkei Asian Review earlier this month.
The party's spokesperson told reporters Monday that the party aims to form a coalition government after the election, according to Reuters.
Analysts have conflicting views on the fate of coalition talks led by Palang Pracharat.
"Democrats and Bhumjaithai will join the pro-junta coalition," predicted Yuji Mizukami, visiting research fellow from Thammasat University. He suggested that these two parties would rather be included in the ruling coalition than to remain as opposition. Palang Pracharat could have majority of lower house in sight, if these two parties are willing to join it.
But Pitch Pongsawat, assistant professor of political science from Chulalongkorn University, think otherwise. "To set up a coalition government this time is not easy," he said. "Pheu Thai got more seats than Palang Pracharat, but Palang Pracharat got more votes than Pheu Thai. Who will lead to form a coalition with whom?"
Palang Pracharat gained 7.9 million votes, ahead of Pheu Thai with 7.4 million votes.
There is little likelihood of Pheu Thai or Future Forward joining a pro-junta coalition because both have taken strong anti-junta stances.
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai said Monday that it was open to negotiations with other anti-junta parties to form a government.
"This government under formation must respond to the will of the people," Sudarat Keyuraphan, the Thaksin-linked party's premier candidate, said in a news conference.
An announcement of official final results may take some time. The election commission must assess irregularities in order to finalize the results. Irregularities can lead to disqualifications and by-elections, which could also affect the process of forming a coalition.
The Asian Network for Free Elections, or Anfrel, was assigned as the only independent international observer. "On the election day, at least, the voting has been relatively smooth," said Rohana Hattiarachchi, head of Anfrel's Thai election watch mission.
However, the Open Forum for Democracy, a domestic nongovernmental organization focusing on strengthening democracy and electoral processes, said vote-buying was rampant on the eve of Sunday's general election, the Bangkok Post reported.
Forum executive Ladawan Tantiwithaypitak said several parties resorted to "money politics." She said people were taken to campaign rallies by car, with each receiving 200 baht to attend and drivers receiving 500 baht. Ladawan said information regarding these allegations has been forwarded to the election authority.
Asia regional correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok contributed to this story.