Thais were forecast to have voted in record numbers on Sunday in an election expected to deliver big gains for opposition forces, an outcome that would test the resolve of a pro-military establishment central to two decades of intermittent turmoil.
Voting closed at 5 p.m. local time (1000 GMT), with the Election Commission earlier projecting a turnout of 80% among the 52 million eligible voters.
Voters got to choose among progressive opposition parties – one with a knack for winning elections – and ruling coalition parties allied with royalist generals keen to preserve the status quo after nine years of government led or backed by the army.
Opinion polls have indicated the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties will gain the most seats but with no guarantee either will govern because of parliamentary rules written by the military after its 2014 coup and skewed in its favour.
“I want the election result to come out as I hope for, because I want the country to move forward without fighting between generations,” said Bangkok business-owner Onesuwat Chakrabundhu, 62, declining to say which party he chose.
Elsewhere in the capital, most of the prime ministerial hopefuls for the ruling party and opposition groups cast their votes, including incumbent Prayuth Chan-ocha and Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
“People need change,” Paetongtarn said after casting her vote, expressing “high hopes” for a landslide victory, a feat achieved by Pheu Thai and its previous incarnation in 2011 and 2005, among the movement’s five election wins.
The contest again pits Pheu Thai’s driving force, the billionaire Shinawatra family, against a nexus of old money, military and conservatives with influence over key institutions that have toppled three of the populist movement’s four governments.
The seeds of conflict were sown in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra, a brash capitalist upstart, was swept to power on a pro-poor, pro-business platform that energised disenfranchised rural masses and challenged patronage networks, putting him at odds with Thailand’s established elite.
Thaksin’s detractors in the urban middle class viewed him as a corrupt demagogue who abused his position to build his own power base and further enrich his family. Mass protests broke out in Bangkok during his second term in office.
In 2006 the military toppled Thaksin, who fled into exile. His sister Yingluck’s government suffered the same fate eight years later. Now his daughter Paetongtarn, 36, a political neophyte, has taken up the mantle.
The populist approach of Pheu Thai and its predecessors has been so successful that rival forces that once derided it as vote-buying – military-backed Palang Pracharat and Prayuth’s United Thai Nation – now offer strikingly similar policies.
Prayuth, a general who overthrew Pheu Thai’s last government in the 2014 coup and has been in power ever since, has campaigned on continuity, trying to woo conservative middle-class voters tired of street protests and political upheaval.
“Today is the election day, to show how a democratic system should be,” he said at a polling station.
Some analysts argue the fight for power in Thailand is more than a grudge match between the polarising Shinawatra clan and its influential rivals, with signs of a generational shift and hankering for more progressive government.
Move Forward, led by 42-year-old Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat, has seen a late surge.
It is banking on young people, including 3.3 million eligible first-time voters, to back its plans to dismantle monopolies, weaken the military’s political role and amend a strict law against insulting the monarchy that critics say is used to stifle dissent.
“I’m happy that we’ve gone through the journey and people get to say what they want to say,” Pita said after casting his vote.
“Hopefully, the entire country will respect the results and the will of the people.”