A political party loyal to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has claimed victory Sunday in the first Thai elections since a 2006 military coup. But its projected share of votes fell short of an absolute majority, making a coalition government a necessity.
The vote is a slap in the face for the coup leaders, who ousted Mr. Thaksin, a twice-elected leader, for alleged corruption, disbanded his party, and barred him from politics. Now his loyalists, who have regrouped as the People Power Party (PPP), may find their path to forming a government blocked by legal challenges and wary coalition partners.
An unofficial count by a state broadcaster gave the PPP 228 out of 480 seats in parliament, well ahead of the rival Democrat Party, which took 159. That puts a clutch of smaller parties, including some led by former Thaksin allies, in the position of potential kingmakers when parliament meets next month. But it also means uncertainty in the coming weeks as politicians try to hammer together a power-sharing deal.
PPP leader Samak Sandaravej told reporters on Sunday night that he was inviting party leaders to join him in a coalition and declared a "victory for the people" over the military's intervention in politics. "The largest party should form the government. Other parties should join us so that together the country can move forward," he said.
Analysts say minor parties will be reluctant to do so, though, as long as Thailand's royalist generals oppose allowing Thaksin or his allies back into power. That would push them in the camp of the Democrats, who as the second-placed party would be next in line to lead a government.
Touching on this theme, PPP official Jakrapop Penkhair said that Prem Tinsulanonda, the influential chief adviser to the revered king, had called the leaders of two small parties to his residence. In an apparent dig at Mr. Prem, who has been linked to last year's coup, Mr. Jakrapop said his enemies were "outside parliament." [Editor's note: The original version misattributed a quote about the king's chief adviser.]
If the Democrats do pull together a coalition, the PPP's large parliamentary bloc would make them formidable opponents. Analysts say this could lead to legislative gridlock, and eventually trigger early elections if the coalition cracks under the strain. Short-lived parliamentary coalitions plagued Thailand in past decades, until the rise of Thai Rak Thai, the party founded and led by Thaksin, which became the first in Thai history to lead a government for a full term. It subsequently won a landslide majority in 2005.
In the final days of campaigning, the PPP hammered home its pro-Thaksin message, telling voters that the party would seek to guarantee his return in February and would disband a military-appointed anti-corruption panel that has frozen his bank accounts.
That resonated with Pichamon Ratanasirintrawoot, a first-time voter in Bangkok. Squinting in bright sunshine outside a polling station, she said her choice was the PPP. "When Thaksin was here, he helped our country a lot. I hope he will come back," she says.
While the military has kept its word by holding democratic elections, its promise to return troops to the barracks is less certain. Thailand's new Constitution puts considerable checks on the powers of an elected parliament, including a Senate that is currently stacked with military appointees. The constitution also requires the government to maintain military spending, which has risen more than fourfold since the coup.
Another potential tool for interference is an internal security law that was passed Thursday by an interim legislature. The law revives a cold war-era military directorate and empowers it to detain suspects without trial, order curfews, and overrule civilian agencies during vaguely defined emergencies. Critics say it legitimizes future military intervention in politics.
Samak and other party leaders also complained that the unofficial tally in Bangkok, where the Democrats took the largest share, differed sharply from exit polls that were accurate outside the capital, and said this warranted further investigation, but stopped short of alleging fraud.
Politicians are now watching the next move of the Election Commission, which has received hundreds of complaints of irregularities, including vote buying. The commission can disqualify candidates and order reruns, a power that analysts say may be wielded against the PPP.
"The strategy of the junta will be to disqualify as many PPP candidates as possible to reduce their margin [of victory] and reduce the leverage the PPP has to form a government," says Sunai Pasuk, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Thailand.