Voters in Thailand go to the polls today in the first election since a 2014 military coup in a race broadly cast as between the current junta leader, who is seeking to stay on through the ballot, and anti-junta parties led by loyalists to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
An international observer group said it would face limitations in judging to what extent Thailand's general election is free and fair, partly because it was granted accreditation too late to get more than 35 monitors into the country.
The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which sought accreditation in November, had hoped to deploy 80 observers for an electorate of 51.4 million people.
But permission to monitor the poll was only granted on March 14 and so less than half that number will be on the ground for an election critics say has been stacked in favour of the military by the country's junta.
Thailand's vote comes after nearly five years of direct military rule and is viewed as a contest between junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha - who wants to stay on as elected leader - and a "democratic front" of parties led by the ousted pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai.
A third faction, led the anti-Thaksin establishment Democrat Party, argues it can form a government that is neutral.
A parliamentary system created by a new military-backed constitution, however, gives pro-junta parties a huge advantage over their rivals, including Pheu Thai, which is expected to win the most votes.
Rights groups had called on the military government to allow foreign observers to monitor the election, but only ANFREL was given permission last week.
The European Union said in a statement on Friday that it had not received an invitation to observe the election in time and would deploy staff members on a "diplomatic watch" for internal reporting only.
The United States, which downgraded ties with Thailand following the 2014 coup, said it was "very keen" to see Thailand return to an elected government.
Major parties held their largest rallies yet on Friday evening, ahead of the campaign cut-off time at 6:00pm (1100 GMT) yesterday. More than 93,200 polling stations in 77 provinces will open at 8:00am (0100 GMT) today.
Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha crooned a ballad at a Friday rally of the military proxy Palang Pracharat Party's in Bangkok to make his final pitch for staying on as prime minister. Singing to the crowd and collecting roses from supporters, he promised to "save the country, save the religion, save the monarchy" and lead the country out of divisive politics of the past 15 years.
Almost simultaneously, Thaksin, whose affiliated parties have won every election since 2001, said at his daughter's wedding reception in Hong Kong: "We will win for sure."
Pheu Thai's long-time rival, the Democrat Party, told voters at its Friday rally that they did not have to choose between "dictatorship" and "corruption", respectively referring to Prayuth and Thaksin, who fled the country to avoid corruption charges in 2008.
"Time's up for dictatorship. Time's up for corruption," said its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who could hold the key to power after what is expected to be an inconclusive poll that triggers intense horse-trading among parties to form a government.
“It's time for 'democracy with integrity.' Vote Democrat."