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Polls close in Thailand's first general election since 2014 coup

Sunday's crunch vote was foreshadowed by a cryptic last-minute warning from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to support 'good' leaders to prevent 'chaos.'

A security personnel and electoral officials count votes at a polling station in Narathiwat on March 24, 2019 after polls closed in Thailand's general election. Picture: AFP.

BANGKOK, Thailand - Thais began the nail-biting wait late Sunday to see whether the ruling junta will return to power as a civilian government, or if pro-democracy parties can triumph against the odds, as polls closed in the country's first general election since a 2014 coup.

The Election Commission estimated turnout at 80% as voters flocked to schoolyards, temples and government offices across the nation, their enthusiasm fired by years of denied democracy.

Sunday's crunch vote was foreshadowed by a cryptic last-minute warning from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to support "good" leaders to prevent "chaos".

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the palace is nominally above politics. But the institution retains unassailable powers and is insulated from criticism by a harsh royal defamation law.

The election pits a royalist junta and its allies against the election-winning machine of billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, and an unpredictable wave of millions of first-time voters.

The kingdom remains bitterly divided despite the junta's pledge to rescue it from a decade-long treadmill of protests and coups.

"I am anxious," said Wipa Ployngam, 53, outside the Bangkok headquarters of the upstart, anti-junta Future Forward party, hoping a pro-democracy coalition will nudge its way to victory.

"I'll stay here all night until everything becomes clear."

Politicians across the spectrum fear a stalemate under election rules, written by the junta, which limit the chances of any single party emerging with a comfortable parliamentary majority.

Experts say unstable coalitions could swiftly collapse, dunking the kingdom back into political crisis.

There are 51 million eligible voters and more than seven million first-timers aged 18-25.

Preliminary results were expected within a few hours of the polls closing at 5:00 pm (1000 GMT) with exit polls giving an unreliable steer on the outcome.

The Election Commission said the full count could take days or weeks.

Fears of the potential for foul play amped up as polls closed, in a reflection of the lingering mistrust between rival political camps.

"Thai people come to vote because they want change," said Somkid, 64, a Pheu Thai voter who gave only one name.

"If there is any vote rigging there will be protests."

ROYAL MESSAGE

The day was framed by the palace statement, which added further intrigue to an election that repeatedly threatened to tip into chaos before a single ballot was cast.

It reiterated comments by late king Bhumibol Adulyadej from 1969 calling for voters to "support good people to govern the society and control the bad people" to prevent them "creating chaos".

While King Maha Vajiralongkorn gave no further clues as to who those "good people" might be, the phrase -- "khon dee" in Thai -- is habitually attached to royalist, establishment politicians.

Another royal command in February torpedoed the candidacy of the king's elder sister Princess Ubolratana for prime minister of a party linked to Thaksin.

Thaksin has lived in self-exile since 2008, but he looms large over Sunday's election.

His affiliated parties have won every Thai election since 2001, drawing on loyalty from rural and urban poor.

JUNTA NUMBER UP?

The junta party, which is proposing army-chief-turned premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha for civilian prime minister after the polls, is under intense pressure to avoid humiliation in what is effectively a referendum on its popularity.

Prayut toppled the civilian government of Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck in 2014.

The army and its allies in the Bangkok elite loathe the Shinawatras, accusing the clan of toxifying Thai politics and society with money, nepotism and graft.

The Shinawatras say they have simply recognised the economic and democratic aspirations of Thailand's majority.

This time the junta has written new election rules aimed at curbing the number of seats big parties -- specifically Pheu Thai -- can win.

Pheu Thai was well ahead in the early count in it's north and northeastern heartlands.

In Bangkok Sudarat Keyuraphan, a Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate said the party was eyeing a coalition but vowed "we will not join" any supporters of Prayut.

She also urged the 250-member junta-appointed senate to "act in line with the will of the people", a reference to system which allows the upper house to appoint a premier from a minority government.

But with senate votes in hand, the junta-party Phalang Pracharat needs just 126 lower house seats to secure a parliamentary majority, even if it does not carry the popular mandate.

It can cross that line comfortably in alliance with smaller parties.

Pheu Thai needs 376 lower house seats to command an overall majority.

"A deadlock is very likely," political scientist Napisa Waitoolkiat of Naresuan University told AFP.

Many younger voters are expected to surge behind the telegenic 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward party.

In early counting, Thanathorn's social media pull appeared to have carried into the polling as his party galloped ahead in several Bangkok seats.

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