Thailand's ruling junta took an unexpected lead in the country's first election since a 2014 coup with more than 90 per cent of ballots counted.
Abbie O'Brien is reporting from Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand's election was "rigged" to ensure the military retain their grip on power, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a towering behind-the-scenes figure in the politically turbulent kingdom, has claimed.
Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, an arch foe of ousted billionaire tycoon Thaksin, appears poised for victory after his army-linked party made a strong showing in Sunday's poll, aided by a new constitution that gives him a head start.
Election officials delayed without explanation a full announcement of preliminary results as a blizzard of complaints mount over apparent mistakes in the count and possible irregularities.
Now Thaksin has broken a months-long silence to add his voice to the mix, accusing the military of stacking the deck 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 English.
"What we call, we should call, rigged elections is there. It's not good for Thailand."
Thaksin was speaking to AFP on Monday afternoon from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong where he watched as results came in from a homeland he has not set foot in for more than a decade.
The 69-year-old tycoon was ousted in a 2006 coup and has since chosen self-exile in Dubai.
But he has remained a crucial component of Thailand's decade-long treadmill of protests and coups - a populist loved by his largely rural poor base and loathed by a royalist military elite and their wealthy Bangkok allies.
Parties linked to his family have won every election since 2001, only to find themselves toppled by coups, street protests and court rulings.
Thaksin's sister Yingluck was herself ousted in a 2014 putsch, and is also living in self-exile.
SBS News spoke with Bangkok citizens on the street to gauge their reactions.
One street vendor said she's been eagerly checking for updates in between the busy dinner-time rush.
"I'm very excited. I'm waiting for the outcome and keeping track of the result," she said.
"I am really hoping for change, whoever wins more or less I just want change," said another.
Asked whether he was concerned that Prime Minister Prayuth will likely remain leader, one man said he remained optimistic.
"We have to respect the result of this vote. If Prayuth actually wins the election, we have to support it because this is what democracy is. No matter the result, we just have to accept it."
But other Pheu Thai voters weren't as positive.
"People can see clearly that this election is not fair," one woman told SBS.
Thailand has tumultuous political history, marked by military coups and violent street protests and so there were concerns the result of this election could spark disorder.
Some Thais said they just want stability, while others said it's possible people could take to the streets.
"People have rights to go and say this is not a fair system."
Sunday's election was seen as a referendum on the military's five-year rule but was held under new rules written by the junta to ease its transformation into a civilian government.
The next prime minister needs to win a simple majority in the 500-seat lower house and a 250-seat senate. But the latter will be entirely appointed by the junta, giving Prayut, who is standing, a huge leg up.
Partial figures released late Monday showed the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai party had earned 137 of the 350 available constituency seats so far, not enough to take on Prayut's Palang Pracharat party which so far has 97 seats but can rely on the senate.
Prayut's party also racked up 7.6 million votes with more than 90 percent of votes tallied, nearly half a million more than Pheu Thai. Full results and seat numbers might take weeks to be released.
Thaksin said the electoral handicap would do little to legitimise the country internationally or appease voters.
"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 military in key provinces and the some 1.9 million ballots invalidated so far.
"If you look at the number of ballots and the number of voter turnout, the ballots much more exceeds the number of voter turnout in many, many provinces," he said.
"Also why the void ballots are so high? So high, many irregularities happen".
Another major issue of the election is the economy.
Dr Greg Raymond, an expert in Thai politics at the Australian National University is in Bangkok, has been observing the election as part of his research.
He told SBS many blame General Prayuth for Thailand's economic woes.
"Economic growth is also a big issue. Thailand used to grow at five, six or seven per cent but over the past five years it's been three per cent and many people blame that on the military government," he said.
"We are not going to know for sometime, who's going to become Prime Minister. And there is going to have to been some deals struck with the smaller parties. "
One voter told SBS News she feared more grim economic forecasts under General Prayuth.
"I’m not very happy at all if Prayuth wins again. The past five years the economy has gotten worse and worse," she told SBS.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said things were finally starting to come to a head,
"Thailand has been stuck in crisis and polarisation for the last 14 years. What you have here is really the culmination of the last 14 years of elections, protests, coups, constitutions and elections again," he said.
"It means that the ruling conservative establishment are trying to write the ruleson the outcomes they want.
"After all that's been said and seen in Thai politics, all the protests and the violence and volatility, they've come up with a 2017 constitution which is a fully appointed Senate, appointed by the military."
On Friday Thaksin celebrated his youngest daughter's wedding in Hong Kong.
The lavish celebration at a newly opened hotel on the Victoria Harbour was attended by a bevy of Thai political and business figures, illustrating the family's continued pull.
Among those present was Yingluck and Princess Ubolratana, who briefly caused a shockwave ahead of the elections when she was announced as a candidate to lead a Thaksin-linked party.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn stopped the nomination, and a court later dissolved the party that proposed Ubolratana - dealing a major blow to the pro-Thaksin electoral machinery.
Thaksin's aides said he would not answer questions on the royal family, citing the kingdom's lese majeste laws.
Asked whether he thought he would see Thailand again he replied: "I don't care. But I still love my country, love my people."
He insisted he no longer controls the parties linked to him.
"I am 70 this year. If I were to form a party, I would form 'Enjoy Life' party," he added.
Thaksin, who briefly owned English football club Manchester City, has long been a polarising figure at home.
Critics say his rule was marked by graft, nepotism, an authoritarian streak and an approach that undermined the powerful monarchy, infuriating Thailand's old guard.
Asked if he had any regrets he replied: "Nobody (is) perfect. Nobody is right 100 percent or wrong 100 percent. Yes we have to learn from the past, but we should not be a prisoner of the past."
He compared Thailand to Myanmar and Indonesia during their years of military-led quasi-democracies.
"The only way that Thailand can prosper, we have to turn into full democracy, and we should have a free and fair election," he said.
"Under democracy, whoever wins, has the wish of the people, can form the government. But this (election) is not really the wish of the people," he added.