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Thailand election highlights a divided society

Despite optimism for a return to democratic governance in Thailand, the first election since a 2014 coup has forced many Thais to accept that the military will continue to rule. Julian Küng reports from Bangkok.

The final result of Thailand's election may not be official until the end of the week, but both sides are already claiming the right to begin forming a government. The pro-military Palang Pracharat party currently looks to have a slight edge over the Pheu Thai party loyal to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

On Monday morning, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was seen entering the government offices in Bangkok looking relaxed wearing his military uniform and aviator sunglasses. With 94 percent of votes counted, the junta leader's party has earned some 7.6 million votes and seems to be on the path to victory. 

Read more: Thailand votes in first general election since 2014 military coup

At least that's what they're claiming. Thailand's Election Commission is reportedly overwhelmed, and has pushed back announcing results until Friday. The Pheu Thai party, which was pushed from power in 2014, is reportedly only a small number of votes behind Prayuth Chan-ocha, and the delay in announcing official results has given them some hope.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth speaks to reporters

Prime Minister Prayuth is expected to remain in power

Dashed hopes for change

However, for many Thais who had hoped that the military would lose its grip on power, the election results are a bitter disappointment. Regardless of the exact numbers, many in Thailand had not anticipated that the junta's party would perform so well.

And because the military-drafted constitution already stipulates that the 250-member Senate be appointed by the military, Prayuth looks to comfortably remain as head of government with the parliamentary seats that have already been won.

But rather than upheaval and demonstrations, the streets and alleys in central Bangkok were quiet Monday. A few people gathered on the sidewalk and listened to a political debate on a small radio. An elderly man sat scribbling on a crossword puzzle as the radio proclaimed the military's election victory.

"We have lost an important chance to return democracy to our country," he said. He voted for the Future Forward party, which supported an end to military rule and managed to emerge as the third-strongest party in the election. 

Read more:Divided Thailand unites around cave rescue, but solidarity won't last 

On election day, the military presence in Bangkok was felt everywhere and political demonstrations were not allowed. The elderly man didn't comment if he thought the election was fair. "I don't want any problem with those guys," pointing to the military vehicles across the street.

During the junta's five-year rule, the prime minister has cracked down on critical voices and oppressed the media. And in the political arena, he stops at nothing to weaken the opposition.

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Thailand: Waiting for election results

"The good performance [of the military] is not a coincidence," Katrin Bannach from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Bangkok told DW. "Since the coup in 2014, media and political commentators have been self-censoring because they have been pushed around often enough."

Political campaigning for the 2019 vote has only been allowed since the beginning of February, and since then, there have been numerous legal cases launched against politicians criticizing the army.

"Legal proceedings against parties that are affiliated with the military junta are not taken seriously by so-called independent courts and institutions, yet quick action is taken against political opponents," said Bannach.

However, the Palang Pracharat party's good performance in the elections can't be attributed solely to its efforts to strong-arm the opposition. There are many in Thailand who value order and stability more than democratic participation.

"Prayuth makes sure the country is stable, and that is a good thing," said Pathi Sawanih, a 32-year-old who works on a social project supported by the junta. "Not only that: At the beginning of the year, he gave 15 million poor people 500 baht (€14) each."

A few streets away, Ah, a longtime tuk-tuk driver, doesn't want to hear anything about Prayuth's probable re-election. "I had hoped that military rule would finally be coming to an end," he said. "Ever since Prayuth came to power, police patrols just won't leave us alone, chasing us through half the city over trivialities like parking tickets. They only look after themselves. I'm very doubtful the elections were conducted properly."

Thai soldiers in Bangkok

Military trucks were seen patrolling Bangkok on Monday

Reports of election fraud

Many Thai voters have said on social media that they were bribed by the army. The delay in announcing the final results and the high number of voided ballots, numbering around 1.9 million as of Monday night, is raising concerns of election fraud. Numerous international observers and NGOs have called the elections "neither free nor fair."

Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch Thailand has criticized the lack of election observers. "The Election Commission failed to create structures that would allow international and national election observers to work freely, securely, and effectively," he told DW.

Read more: Opinion: Thai citizens must challenge dictatorship

A few election observers were permitted only a few days ago, and even these were handpicked by the commission. These include Thai organizations like We Watch and P-Net, and according to Phasuk, their job was made difficult by the Election Commission.

"The Election Commission did not provide any clear guidelines. In certain areas, We Watch observers were intimidated and even under constant surveillance of security personal," he said.

Elections observers have reportedly filed a complaint with the Election Commission. They have yet to receive a response.

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