Thailand's ruling junta took an unexpected lead in the country's first election since a 2014 coup with more than 90 percent of ballots counted, putting it on course to return to power at the expense of the kingdom's pro-democracy camp.
Yesterday's election was held under new laws written by the military to smooth its transformation into a civilian government.
While it had set the rules of the game in its favour, analysts had not expected the party to win the popular vote, given mounting anger at junta rule and due to the enduring popularity of Pheu Thai, the party of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The army-linked Phalang Pracharat party, which wants junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha to return as premier, gained more than 7.3 million votes with 91 percent of ballots tallied, according to the Election Commission -- nearly half a million more than Pheu Thai.
The EC said it would announce full results today, including the numbers of lower house seats won by each party.
Former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva stepped down as leader of the Democrat Party after its poor showing the general election.
Thailand's oldest political party was in fourth place in the popular vote, with a little more that 3 million votes, according to partial results released by the Election Commission.
The election pitted a royalist junta and its allies against the election-winning machine of billionaire Thaksin -- who was toppled in a 2006 coup -- and featured an unpredictable wave of millions of first-time voters.
There was a high turnout as voters flocked to schoolyards, temples and government offices across the nation, their enthusiasm fired by years of denied democracy.
The junta has pledged to rescue the kingdom from a decade-long treadmill of protests and coups.
The election commission's announcement late yesterday diminished prospects of a pro-democracy alliance nudging it from power. But still supporters clung on in hope.
Fears of the potential for foul play ricocheted across social media as results came in -- a reflection of the lingering mistrust between rival camps, and disbelief that a much-pilloried junta could have won a popularity contest against Pheu Thai.
"Thai people come to vote because they want change," said Somkid, 64, a Pheu Thai voter who gave only one name.
"If there is any vote rigging there will be protests."
Yesterday's crunch vote was foreshadowed by a cryptic last-minute warning from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to support "good" leaders to prevent "chaos".
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the palace is nominally above politics. But the institution retains unassailable powers and is insulated from criticism by a harsh royal defamation law.
Thaksin has lived in self-exile since 2008, but he looms large over the election. His affiliated parties have won every Thai election since 2001, drawing on loyalty from rural and urban poor.
Junta chief Prayut toppled the civilian government of Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck in 2014.
The army and its allies in the Bangkok elite loathe the Shinawatras, accusing the clan of toxifying Thai politics and society with money, nepotism and graft. The Shinawatras say they have simply recognised the economic and democratic aspirations of Thailand's majority.
In Bangkok Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate, said the party was eyeing a coalition but vowed "we will not join" any supporters of Prayut.
Critics have said a new, junta-devised electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent Pheu Thai from returning to power.
The provision means Prayuth's Palang Pracharat Party and allies have to win only 126 seats in the House, while Pheu Thai and its potential "democratic front" partners would need 376.
If the early results play out today, it appears set to comfortably cross that line.
Pheu Thai needs 376 lower-house seats to command an overall majority.
The telegenic 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward party were also set for a strong showing, taking over five million votes for their acerbic anti-junta positions. Thanathorn's social media pull appeared to have carried into the polling as his party galloped ahead in several Bangkok seats.