Thais wishing to cast early ballots have turned out in droves a week before the country's first election in eight years. The military junta, which took power in 2014, has repeatedly delayed the vote.
Hundreds of thousands of Thais queued to vote early on Sunday in parliamentary elections not scheduled for another week.
"It feels good to use our democratic right," said 29-year-old Adulwit Sinthusiri, one of the 2.6 million Thais who registered for the one-day-only advanced polling ahead of the March 24 main vote.
Schools, parking lots and temples, which were turned into polling stations for the day, closed at 5 p.m. local time (1000 UTC), with many reporting long queues throughout the day.
Many voters are hoping for a return to full civilian rule after Thailand's powerful military seized power in May 2014 — the country's 12th coup d'etat since 1932. The army promised to restore order and reconcile the country's sharp political divisions before allowing democracy to resume.
Military will still dominate
Analysts, however, have said the country's new electoral system, devised by the military, favors the army-aligned Palang Pracharath party, which is fronted by junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has delayed elections several times.
Prayut seeks to lead a new civilian government following the March 24 vote, which some analysts said will return a straitjacketed democracy with the military still prominent.
One of his main challengers, Sudarat Keyuraphan of the Pheu Thai party, warned voters on Sunday "not to be tricked" by the military regime and its affiliated parties.
Sudarat — whose party is tipped to win the most seats in the lower house but not enough to form a government — says Prayut's rule has been a "failure" as he has done little to tackle corruption, a weak economy, or the low standard of living of most Thais.
Several parties have campaigned on policies that they said would improve the economy and increase prices of rice and rubber for the country's many farmers.
Read more: A moment of shock for Thailand's military
Junta leader popular with voters
Although military rule is not widely supported, Prayut himself remains popular with many voters. He is credited with ending two years of political instability between supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck ran the country until the 2014 coup, and conservative, royalist parties who led widespread protests against the what they say was a corrupt Thaksin dynasty.
"Prayut is a good man ... he is straightforward and does good things for the country," said 63-year-old Nawarat Phuyungwattana from the southern province of Narathiwat.
A total of 52 million Thais aged 18 and above are eligible to help elect the 500-seat House of Representatives in next Sunday's polls — the first in eight years.
But while new and smaller parties could play kingmaker to help form a coalition government, the junta will appoint the 250-seat Senate, giving Prayut's party a head start in securing a majority vote of the combined parliament needed to choose a prime minister.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won all Thai elections since 2001 and espouse populist policies like a universal health care scheme and guaranteed rice prices, but were overthrown by the military in 2006 as well as 2014.
Thaksin, who remains popular among many low-income Thais, is in self-imposed exile after conviction on a corruption charge.
His sister Yingluck also fled abroad and was found guilty in absentia of abuse of power over the removal of her national security chief.
mm/sms (AFP, Reuters)