After five years of military rule, the people of Thailand have voted in a general election. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who led a coup in 2014, is hoping to extend his rule.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief who led the coup, is hoping to extend his reign after crafting a new political system that aims to suppress the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.
About 51.4 million people from Thailand's population of 69 million were able to vote at more than 93,200 polling stations in 77 provinces.
After the elections, a rubber-stamp Senate will choose the prime minister alongside the lower house.
Read more: A moment of shock for Thailand's military
It is the first time in the country's history that parties have had to identify a prime ministerial candidate ahead of an election.
While there is a high chance Prayuth Chan-ocha will be successful, opinion polls show the junta's popularity has suffered over the years due to repeated election delays, the suppression of free speech and corruption allegations.
Thais are voting for the first time since a military coup in 2014 ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
'A military-staged and managed spectacle'
For almost two decades Thailand has been caught between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who transformed traditional Thai politics with a populist political revolution.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid jail, but parties allied with him have run in every election since 2001.
"This election is a military-staged and managed spectacle in which the odds almost entirely favor the junta," Paul Chambers, a political science professor at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, told German news agency DPA.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the main pro-Thaksin party, Pheu Thai, said her party would fight to overcome the constitutional barriers Prayuth's regime had set up.
"In 2014, they took power with the barrel of a gun, by a coup," she said. "In 2019, they are trying to take away the people's power again through crooked regulations under the constitution."
Economy woes sway voters
Concerns over the economy under Prayuth's rule swing in favor of anti-military parties. "Every time we come back, the economy improves, right?" Sudarat told a crowd of supporters.
But Prayuth's claim in 2014 that he would end political unrest that periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy has been a selling point for him.
"I will protect this country for our future generations," Prayuth said. "Who will join me?"
There was hope that Prayuth would lose power to Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, who announced she would be putting in a presidential bid with the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is also considered to be close to Thaksin. But these hopes were dashed when Ubolratana's brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, declared her candidacy invalid.
The election commission has said that the first unofficial results will be available three hours after voting ends.
law/aw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)