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Bangkok: Thailand’s political opposition looked on course for a huge win in Sunday’s election, as voters turned out in force behind two parties promising big changes and an end to a decade of conservative government led or backed by the military.

The Pheu Thai Party and the liberal Move Forward party surged ahead with more than 90 per cent of the votes counted, but are far from certain to lead the next government, with parliamentary rules written by the military after its 2014 coup skewed in its favour.

Leader of Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat will push to become prime minister after his party’s strong performance in Thai elections.Credit: AP

To rule, the opposition parties will need to strike deals, including with members of a junta-appointed Senate that sided with military parties and gets to vote on who becomes prime minister and form a government.

Sunday’s election was the latest bout in a long-running battle for power between Pheu Thai, the populist juggernaut of the billionaire Shinawatra family, and a nexus of old money, conservatives and military with influence over key institutions at the heart of two decades of turmoil.

But the stunning performance by Move Forward as it rides a wave of support from young voters will test the resolve of Thailand’s establishment and ruling parties, after it came close to a clean sweep of the capital Bangkok, campaigning on a platform of reform of institutions and a dismantling of business monopolies.

Its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, a 43-year-old former executive of a ride-hailing app, described the outcome as “sensational” and vowed to stay true to his party’s values when forming a government.

Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidates Srettha Thavisin, left, and Paetongtarn Shinawatra.Credit: AP

“It will be anti-dictator-backed, military-backed parties, for sure,” he told reporters. “I think it’s safe to assume that minority government is no longer possible here in Thailand.”

He said he remained open to an alliance with Pheu Thai, but has set his sights set on the premiership.

“If Move Forward comes in first, we will form a government and I will be prime minister,” Pita added.

The preliminary results will be a crushing blow for the military and its allies, with the Palang Pracharat, the political vehicle of the former junta, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s United Thai Nation, seemingly headed for a big defeat.

Prayuth, a retired general who led the last coup, had campaigned on continuity after nine years in charge, warning of instability from a change in government.

On Sunday, Prayuth slipped away quietly from his party headquarters, where there were few supporters to be seen.

A handful of staff sat beside plates of uneaten food and a giant television screen was showing a live speech by Move Forward’s leader.

“I hope the country will be peaceful and prosper,” he told reporters. “I respect democracy and the election. Thank you.”

The early results were expected for Pheu Thai, which together with previous incarnations dissolved by courts has dominated Thailand elections, winning most votes in every ballot since 2001, including two landslide victories.

Founded by the polarising self-exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai remains hugely popular among the working classes and was banking on being swept back to power by nostalgia from a raft of populist policies, like cheap healthcare, micro-loans and generous farming subsidies.

Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, 36, has been tipped to follow in her father’s footsteps and become prime minister.

She said she was happy for Move Forward, but it was too soon to discuss alliances.

“The voice of the people is most important,” she said.

Move Forward saw a late-stage rally in opinion polls and was betting on 3.3 million first-time voters getting behind its liberal agenda, including plans to weaken the military’s political role and amend a strict law on royal insults that critics say is used to stifle dissent.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said Move Forward’s surge demonstrated a major shift in Thai politics.

“Pheu Thai fought the wrong war. Pheu Thai fought the populism war that it already won,” he said.

“Move Forward takes the game to the next level with institutional reform. That’s the new battleground in Thai politics. ..And the votes today are a testament to Move Forward’s forward-looking programme for Thailand.”


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