The Election Commission reported that the conservative Palang Pracharat Party had taken a surprise lead, with 7.6 million votes—more than half a million more than Pheu Thai, the party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, led the Pheu Thai government that was ousted in 2014 by the military.
The strong popular vote by the Palang Pracharat Party shocked voters who had hoped the poll would loosen the military’s grip, while it appeared Pheu Thai had fallen far short of expectations, despite parties linked to Thaksin winning every prior election since 2001.
Meanwhile, the commission announced the winners of 350 of the 500 seats in the lower house, with unofficial results showing Pheu Thai with 137, to 96 for the Palang Pracharat Party.
Following the coup, the military brought in a new constitution in 2017 and with it an unelected 250-seat upper house, whose membership is decided by the military. Thai people are only able to vote for the 500-seat lower house, but the prime minister is decided based on the combined votes of both upper and lower houses.
To retain current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta would only need 126 of 376 lawmakers. For Pheu Thai to appoint a new prime minister, they would need all 376 seats from the lower house.
It was hoped that the vote, the first since the coup, would end 15 years of political turmoil in the Southeast Asian country, but the Election Commission says it could be weeks before the composition of parliament is settled.
The center-right Pheu Thai says it may mount a legal challenge over what it claims were poll irregularities.
“There are irregularities in this election that we’re not comfortable with. These affect the nation’s credibility and people’s trust,” said Sudarat Keyuraphan, candidate for prime minister of the Pheu Thai Party.
“We’ve voiced our concerns before for vote-buying, abuse of power, and cheating. All three have manifested. We will fight back through legal means,” she told a news conference.
Thaksin, a Chinese-Thai tycoon who now lives in exile, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on March 25 claiming that the election was rigged.
“I knew that the junta running Thailand wanted to stay in power, but I cannot believe how far it has gone to manipulate the general election on Sunday,” he wrote.
In a separate interview with the Financial Times, Thaksin complained that the election had not been “free and fair” and accused the military of manipulating the results.
Many have questioned the low voter turnout figure of 70 percent, with a spokeswoman from new party Future Forward saying the numbers “don’t add up.”
“This is making people skeptical of the election results,” said Pannika Wanich.
“The Election Commission should address this issue because if the people feel they cannot trust the results, there will be more problems to come,” she said.
Some Thais took to social media, with hashtags “Election Commission screw-up” and “cheating the election” trending on Twitter.
The Electoral Commission has also been criticized for the delay in releasing the full results, a decision it hasn’t explained.
“We have nothing to hide,” the Commission’s deputy secretary-general, Nat Laosisawakul, told a news conference.
The country has been rocked by protests over the past 15 years, both in support and in opposition of Thaksin.
The results for the 150 remaining seats will only be announced on May 9, but the Commission is expected to give a breakdown of the votes on March 29.
Reuters contributed to this report.