Bangkok – After five years of repressive military rule, Thais finally got to decide on their own leadership as voters went to the polls on Sunday for the first general elections since the 2014 coup.
But many political analysts and activists believe that the stage has been set for elections that are neither fully free nor fair.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – who led the coup and has been in charge of the country ever since – is running for prime minister with a high chance of victory. After the elections, a rubber-stamp Senate will choose the prime minister alongside the lower house.
This is the first time in the country’s history that parties have had to identify a prime ministerial candidate ahead of an election.
A week and a half ago, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said it would not be difficult for his military-backed party to form a government because the Senate was "controllable."
"This election is a military staged and managed spectacle in which the odds almost entirely favour the junta," said Paul Chambers, a political science lecturer at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.
Excitement was nevertheless rife among the electorate, with long lines of people enduring the summer heat of 35 degrees Celsius and high levels of air pollution in some areas to cast their ballots.
"I already voted. Hang in there guys. It’s kinda hot but all of you can do it," tweeted a social media user under the account @zhihuiminp.
Many voters in the northern city of Chiang Mai were also spotted with protective masks as the Air Quality Index (AQI) reached the "hazardous" level of 396 points before mid-day.
Queues have been formed even before the polling stations opened.
"I came early to avoid my family," first-time voter Chulee Kobwittayawong told dpa at a Bangkok polling station minutes after it opened.
"My parents will vote for the junta but I’m voting for the democratic camp," said the 25-year-old graphic designer, signaling a widening generation gap where young people mostly look for change while older voters opt for the peace and stability offered by the military.
Bangkok’s main railway station was full late Saturday with those returning to their hometowns to vote, according to local TV station ThaiPBS, while a massive turnout was reported by the Election Commission during last week’s advance voting.
A hashtag "I am old enough to choose for myself" is trending on social media in defiance of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s unexpected and cryptic statement on the eve of the election asking people to choose a good leader.
Analysts see the last-minute statement as another intervention in politics by the 66-year-old king.
Most recently, the king blocked his elder sister former princess Ubolratana from running for prime minister, calling the unprecedented move "unconstitutional and highly inappropriate."
"Despite all attempts from the elites to control and dictate the outcomes of the 2019 elections, Thai people are defiant and determined to make their voice heard and shape their own future," said Prajak Kongkirati, a political science professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok.
According to opinion polls, the junta’s popularity has suffered a decline over the years due to repeated election delays, suppression of free speech and corruption allegations.
About 51.2 million Thais, from a population of 69 million, are eligible voters. Seven million of them are first-time voters.
Election Commission President Ittiporn Boonpracong told reporters that the election went smoothly.
A poll conducted on Saturday by think tank Super Poll predicted Pheu Thai Party to win most seats at 163 which falls short to form a government, followed by pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party at 96 seats.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced at 8 pm (GMT 1300).