Voting underway in Thailand's first election since 2014 coup

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Voting underway in Thailand's first election since 2014 coup
A Thai officer adjusts a chair before the voting for the general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, March 24, 2019. Thailand's first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup is scheduled to be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP) — Voters in Thailand were heading to the polls Sunday in the country’s first election since the military ousted an elected government in a 2014 coup.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief who led the coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.

About 51 million Thais are eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule have urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth’s plans.

The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand’s politics with a populist political revolution.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have every election since 2001.

Political parties and their main leaders held their final major rallies on Friday evening in Bangkok.

Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the main pro-Thaksin party, Pheu Thai, said it would fight to overcome constitutional hurdles erected against it by Prayuth’s regime.

“In 2014, they took power with the barrel of a gun, by a coup,” she said. “In 2019, they are trying to take away the people’s power again through crooked regulations under the constitution.”

Concerns about a slowing economy under Prayuth’s rule have been an issue in the campaign. Sudarat told the crowd, “Every time we come back, the economy improves, right?”

Prayuth, dressed in a white button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, pumped his fist into the air as he took the stage at a rally for the military-backed Palang Pracharath party.

“I will protect this country for our future generations,” he said. “Who will join me?”

When it seized power in 2014, the military said it was to end political unrest that had periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy. The claim has been a major selling point for Prayuth.