Baangkok: Thailand's two main opposition parties were well ahead with nearly all ballots counted, Election Commission data showed Monday, delivering a heavy defeat to the army-backed government.
With 97 percent of polling stations counted, the progressive Move Forward Party had 13.5 million ballots in the popular vote, ahead of rival opposition outfit Pheu Thai on 10.3 million, with the United Thai Nation party of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha on 4.5 million.
And in a kingdom where coups and court orders have often trumped the ballot box, there have been fears the military could seek to cling on, raising the prospect of fresh instability.
Pheu Thai, the party of billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra now fronted by his daughter, Paetongtarn, had urged voters to deliver them a landslide to see off the threat of military interference.
A landslide did not appear to be on the cards and the kingdom looks set for a period of political horse-trading as opposition parties try to form a governing coalition.
The Election Commission is not expected to officially confirm the final number of seats won by each party for several weeks.
But without an overwhelming majority MFP and Pheu Thai face a battle to secure power, thanks to the junta-scripted 2017 constitution.
The new premier will be chosen jointly by the 500 elected MPs and 250 senate members appointed by Prayut's junta - stacking the deck in the army's favour.
In the controversial last election in 2019, Prayut rode senate support to become prime minister at the head of a complex multi-party coalition.
After casting her ballot in Bangkok, Pheu Thai's main candidate Paetongtarn showed no signs of nerves.
"Today is going to be a good day. I have very positive energy about it," the 36-year-old told reporters, smiling broadly.
The election is the first since major youth-led pro-democracy protests erupted across Bangkok in 2020 with demands to curb the power and spending of Thailand's king - breaching a long-held taboo on questioning the monarchy.
The demonstrations petered out as Covid-19 curbs were imposed and dozens of leaders were arrested, but their energy fuelled growing support for the more radical opposition MFP.
As he arrived to vote in Bangkok, MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, said he expected a "historic turnout".
"Younger generations these days care about their rights and they will come out to vote," he told reporters.
While MFP sought support from millennial and Gen Z voters - who make up nearly half the 52 million-strong electorate - Pheu Thai drew on its traditional base in the rural northeast where voters are still grateful for the welfare policies implemented by Thaksin in the early 2000s.
Prayut also urged voters to turn out in large numbers as he cast his ballot on Sunday.
The former general made an unashamedly nationalist pitch to older voters, painting himself as the only candidate capable of saving Thailand from chaos and ruin.
But he lagged badly in the polls, blamed for a sputtering economy and feeble recovery from the pandemic, which battered the kingdom's crucial tourism industry.
Rights groups accuse Prayut of overseeing a major crackdown on basic freedoms, with a huge spike in prosecutions under Thailand's draconian royal defamation laws.
The country has seen a dozen coups in the last century and has been locked over the last two decades in a rolling cycle of street protests, coups and court orders dissolving political parties.
The Shinawatra family's bitter tussle with the royalist-military establishment has been at the heart of the drama, with Thaksin ousted in a 2006 coup and his sister Yingluck unseated by Prayut in 2014.
An unclear or disputed result this time could lead to a fresh round of demonstrations and instability.
Adding to the uncertainty, rumours are already swirling that MFP could be dissolved by court order - the same fate that befell its predecessor Future Forward Party after it performed unexpectedly well at the 2019 poll.