Thais head to polling stations in battle of old rivalries

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Thais were forecast to vote in record numbers on Sunday in an election expected to deliver big gains for opposition forces, testing the resolve of a pro-military establishment at the heart of two decades of intermittent turmoil.

About 52 million eligible voters are choosing among progressive opposition parties - one with a knack for winning elections - and others allied with royalist generals keen to preserve the status quo after nine years of government led or backed by the army.

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The Election Commission projects turnout of over 80 percent, with polls to close at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) and unofficial results expected around 10 p.m. (1500 GMT), said Chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong.

Opinion polls indicate the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties will gain the most seats but with no guarantee either will govern because of parliamentary rules written by the military after its 2014 coup and skewed in its favor.

“I hope the party I voted for can make things happen as they promised when they campaigned,” said business owner Nicharee Tangnoi, 29, declining to say which party she supported. The current government “has done their best and I hope the next government can do as they promise.”

Elsewhere in the capital, prime ministerial hopefuls for the ruling party and opposition groups cast their votes, including incumbent Prayuth Chan-ocha and Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

“People need change,” Paetongtarn said after casting her vote, expressing “high hopes” for a landslide victory.

The election again pits Pheu Thai’s driving force, the billionaire Shinawatra family, against a nexus of old money, military and conservatives with influence over key institutions that have toppled three of the populist movement’s four governments.

The seeds of conflict were sown in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra, a brash capitalist upstart, was swept to power on a pro-poor, pro-business platform that energized disenfranchised rural masses and challenged patronage networks, putting him at odds with Thailand’s established elite.

Thaksin’s detractors in the urban middle class viewed him as corrupt who abused his position to build his own power base and further enrich his family. Mass protests broke out in Bangkok during his second term in office.

In 2006 the military toppled Thaksin, who fled into exile. His sister Yingluck’s government suffered the same fate eight years later. Now his daughter Paetongtarn, 36, a political neophyte, has taken up the mantle.

Dictatorship to democracy

“May 14 will be a historic day. We will change from a dictatorship to a democratically elected government,” Paetongtarn told crowds on Friday at Pheu Thai’s final rally.

The populist approach of Pheu Thai and its predecessors has been so successful that rival forces that once derided it as vote-buying - military-backed Palang Pracharat and Prayuth’s United Thai Nation - now offer strikingly similar policies.

Prayuth has campaigned on continuity, hoping to woo conservative middle-class voters tired of street protests and political upheaval.

Some analysts argue the fight for power in Thailand is more than a grudge match between the polarizing Shinawatra clan and its influential rivals, with signs of a generational shift and hankering for more progressive government.

Move Forward, led by 42-year-old Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat, has seen a late surge. It is banking on young people, including 3.3 million eligible first-time voters, to back its plans to dismantle monopolies, weaken the military’s political role and amend a strict law against insulting the monarchy that critics say is used to stifle dissent.

“Hopefully, the entire country will respect the results and the will of the people,” Pita said after voting.

Ben Kiatkwankul, partner at government affairs advisory Maverick Consulting Group, said “the election is a test of the conservative roots and the future of progressiveness.

“The issue is bigger than whether people like or dislike Thaksin or Prayuth. Now it’s the old system facing off against the liberalist wave.”

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