Voters in Thailand head to elections for first time since military coup

About 51 million people are set to vote in Thailand’s general election after almost five years under a military government that’s now looking to bring its leader back as prime minister.

The junta chief, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, is backed by the royalist and military elite who have long duelled for power with exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin or his allies, who draw support from the rural poor, have won every election since 2001, only to be unseated by coups or the courts.

The contest between these dominant forces is expected to play out again in Sunday’s election. The poll is taking place under a military-backed constitution —Thailand’s 20th — that critics say gives appointed soldiers and bureaucrats the ability to stifle elected politicians.

The establishment is trying to extend and "legitimise its power" through the election and the constitution it enacted, said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor at Mahidol University’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities near Bangkok.

A big turnout is expected in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, after Thais thronged ballot boxes in advanced voting last weekend. Polls open at 8 a.m. and close nine hours later, when counting begins. A 24-hour alcohol ban will be enforced from 6 pm Saturday.

Provisional results about the number of votes and constituency seats won by each party are expected on Sunday night. But clarity on who will form the government and become prime minister may not emerge for days or weeks until the tally is certified, after which parliament must sit to elect a premier.

Thailand’s establishment elites have tussled with Thaksin’s populist alliance for over a decade -- a fault line that could bring gridlock to the legislature.

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