Thailand's military was accused Monday of rigging the country's first election since a 2014 coup, with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his pro-democracy party complaining of "irregularities" in preliminary results.
The junta is primed to retain its grip on power despite only having a slight edge in the popular vote, after election officials released the first unofficial early results for seats in the lower house.
But Thaksin, who has remained a towering figure in Thailand's decade-long treadmill of protests and coups, accused the junta of stacking the deck in its favour ahead of the vote and using dirty tricks at the ballot box.
"Everyone knows in Thailand, everyone international that observed the election in Thailand, knows that (there) is irregularities," he told AFP in an interview on Monday in Hong Kong.
"What we call, we should call, rigged elections is there. It's not good for Thailand," he said, speaking in English.
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.
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 Thaksin's Pheu Thai.
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 percent 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.
However, Pheu Thai had 137 constituency seats in the lower house compared to Phalang Pracharat's 97, according to early figures.
There are still 150 "party list" seats in the lower house up for grabs, where the popular vote will matter more.
But however the numbers play out, coup leader Prayut's party will benefit from a military-appointed 250-member Senate, meaning it only needs 126 lower house seats -- compared to 376 for Pheu Thai.
As rivals scrambled to seize the momentum and persuade other parties to join forces in a coalition, Thaksin -- who had remained tight-lipped in the months running up to the vote -- hit out at the junta.
"Any game, if the rule and the referee is not fair, the result will not be respected," said the 69-year-old tycoon.
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 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," he said.
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".
- 'Greatest concern' -
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, claimed 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 Monday that his "greatest concern" is that the junta may stay in power.
Nearly 1.9 million votes had been invalidated with 93 percent of votes tallied.
But the Election Commission 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 commission sidestepped questions over wildly inaccurate poll returns reported late Sunday in several constituencies, with another official calling it "human error".
The EC has said it will finalise the results by May 9.
But questions over the count have billowed out, with social media ablaze with allegations of vote buying, mass invalidation of ballots and bungling.
A co-ordinator for Thailand-based election monitor We Watch said 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.
The vote has again revealed Thailand's old divisions between Thaksin supporters and arch-royalist, conservatives who look to the army for stability.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup, and has lived in self-exile since 2008. The administration of his sister Yingluck was also the victim of a 2014 power grab by the military.
But Kobsak Pootrakool, Phalang Pracharat spokesman, told reporters: "The people have chosen us"
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