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Thai election complaints mount as junta holds popular vote edge

Poll marred by "irregularities" and "rigged" to ensure military retains its political grip on kingdom: Thaksin

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Pheu Thai party's prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan (left) says her party has won the "mandate from the people" to form a government.

Bangkok

CONFUSION and complaints over preliminary results in Thailand's election mounted on Monday after the first poll since a 2014 coup, with the junta primed to retain its grip on power despite only having a slight edge in the popular vote.

Election officials released the first unofficial preliminary results for seats in the lower house as a blizzard of complaints over apparent mistakes in the count and possible irregularities at the polls rolled in.

Sunday's election - seen as a referendum on the military - was held under new rules written by the junta to ease its transformation into a civilian government.

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Despite that headstart, analysts had not expected the army-linked Phalang Pracharat party to win the popular vote, given anger at junta rule and the enduring popularity of Pheu Thai - the party of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

But preliminary figures showed Phalang Pracharat - with 2014 coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha as its candidate for prime minister - ahead in the popular vote. It had racked up more than 7.6 million votes with more than 90 per cent of ballots tallied, giving any government it tries to form a claim to legitimacy.

That is nearly half a million more votes than Pheu Thai, which nonetheless had earned 137 of the 350 available constituency seats in the lower house compared to Phalang Pracharat's 97, according to preliminary figures released later on Monday.

There are still 150 "party list" seats in the lower house up for grabs, which is where the popular vote will matter more. But no matter how the numbers play out, coup leader Prayut's party will benefit from a military-appointed 250-member Senate.

That means Pheu Thai would need to cobble together 376 votes in the lower house to override the Senate advantage, while the junta only needs 126.

As rivals scrambled to seize the momentum and persuade other parties to join forces in a coalition, Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan said her party had won the "mandate from the people" to form a government. She also pointed to "irregularities" and said her party was "gathering evidence about the election process".

Thaksin also added his voice to the charges accusing the military junta of manipulating the election. "I knew that the junta running Thailand wanted to stay in power, but I cannot believe how far it has gone to manipulate the general election on Sunday," Thaksin wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

In an interview with AFP, he said the election was marred by "irregularities" and "rigged" to ensure the military retained its political grip on the kingdom. "Everyone knows in Thailand, everyone international that observed the election in Thailand, knows that (there) is irregularities," he said in English. "What we call, we should call, rigged elections is there. It's not good for Thailand."

Thaksin accused the junta of stacking the deck in its favour ahead of the vote and using dirty tricks at the ballot box. "Any game, if the rule and the referee is not fair, the result will not be respected," he said.

Asked whether he thought the vote was rigged he replied: "Definitely." When pushed for evidence he listed reports of suspiciously high ballots cast for the pro-military party in key provinces as well as the large number of votes that were invalidated by election officials.

"If you look at the number of ballots and the number of voter turnout, the ballots much more exceed the number of voter turnout in many, many provinces," Thaksin said.

Nearly 6 per cent of ballots were invalidated, the Election Commission (EC) reported with 93 per cent of votes tallied.

Despite the charges, Pheu Thai will have to try and build a pro-democracy coalition, lassoing in Future Forward - a new upstart anti-junta party which has won the hearts of millennials, claiming over five million mainly youth votes and 30 lower house constituency seats. Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruankit, whose party is key to any alliance, told reporters on Monday that his "greatest concern" is the junta staying in power.

But the EC defended itself against critics accusing it of bungling the process. "Please wait... this is Thailand, we are not like other countries who have an election one day and form a government the next," said Jarungvith Phumma, EC secretary-general.

The EC sidestepped questions over wildly inaccurate poll returns reported late on Sunday in several constituencies. EC official Nat Laosisawakul blamed delays and irregularities in results on "human error" and said a full count of the vote would be released on Friday. "We have nothing to hide," he said. The EC said it will finalise the results by May 9.

Thaksin, who is at the crux of Thailand's political breakdown, reached out to shocked supporters in the pro-democracy camp. "As long as we still have breath, we cannot give up," he said in a Facebook post on Monday.

But questions over the count have billowed out, with social media ablaze with allegations of vote buying, mass invalidation of ballots and bungling by polling staff across the country. About 400,000 people signed a change.org petition to sack EC members, and more disputes are expected across the political spectrum.

A co-ordinator for Thailand-based election monitor We Watch said that voter education was insufficient. A candidate in Songkhla province for the Democrat Party, which came in second in the last election in 2011 but was down in fifth this time, said they had evidence of votes bought. "Without vote buying, we wouldn't have suffered such big losses," candidate Sirichok Sopha told AFP.

Many Thais took to social media to voice their suspicions about the results of the election. Thai-language hashtags that translated as "Election Commission screw-up" and "cheating the election" were trending on Twitter in Thailand.

Many tweets referred to inconsistencies between the numbers for voter turnout and ballots cast in some parliamentary constituencies. AFP, REUTERS