A voter casts his vote in a ballot box at a polling station on May 14, 2023 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sirachai Arunrugstichai | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Thais were predicted to vote in record numbers on Sunday in an election expected to deliver big wins for opposition forces, testing the resolve of a pro-military establishment at the heart of two decades of erratic turmoil.

Some 52 million eligible voters choose between progressive opposition parties – one capable of winning elections – and others allied with royalist generals keen to preserve the status quo after nine years of government led or backed by the army.

The electoral commission expects a turnout of over 80%, with polling stations closing at 5pm (1000 GMT) and unofficial results expected around 10pm (1500 GMT), chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong said.

Opinion polls indicate the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties will win the most seats but with no guarantee either will govern because of parliamentary rules written by the military after its 2014 coup and skewed in its favor.

“I hope the party I voted for can make things happen as they promised when they campaigned,” said business owner Nicharee Tangnoi, 29, declining to say which party she supported. The current government “has done its best and I hope the next government can do what they promise.”

Elsewhere in the capital, prime ministerial hopefuls voted for the ruling party and opposition groups, including incumbent Prayuth Chan-ocha and Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra.

“People need change,” Paetongtarn said after casting his vote, expressing “high hopes” for a landslide victory.

The election once again pits Pheu Thai’s driving force, the billionaire Shinawatra family, against a nexus of old money, the military and conservatives with influence over key institutions that have toppled three of the populist movement’s four governments.

The seeds of conflict were sown in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra, a foreign capitalist upstart, was swept into power on a pro-poor, pro-business platform that energized rural disenfranchisement and challenged patronage networks, putting him at odds with Thailand’s established elite.

Thaksin’s detractors in the urban middle class saw him as a corrupt demagogue who abused his position to build his own power base and further enrich his family.

Mass protests broke out in Bangkok during his second term. In 2006, the military overthrew Thaksin, who fled into exile.

His sister Yingluck’s government suffered the same fate eight years later. Now his daughter Paetongtarn, 36, a political neophyte, has taken up the mantle.

Dictatorship to democracy

“May 14 will be a historic day. We will change from a dictatorship to a democratically elected government,” Paetongtarn told crowds on Friday at Pheu Thai’s final rally.

The populist approach of Pheu Thai and its predecessors has been so successful that rival forces that once derided it as vote-buyers – the military-backed Palang Pracharat and Prayuth’s United Thai Nation – now offer strikingly similar policies.

Prayuth has campaigned for continuity, hoping to woo conservative middle-class voters fed up with street protests and political upheaval.

Why does Thailand have so many coups?

Some analysts argue that the struggle for power in Thailand is more than a grudge match between the polarizing Shinawatra clan and its influential rivals, with signs of a generational shift and yearning for a more progressive government.

Move Forward, led by 42-year-old Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat, has seen a surge of late. It is banking on young people, including 3.3 million first-time voters, to support its plans to dismantle monopolies, weaken the military’s political role and change a strict law against insulting the monarchy that critics say is being used to stifle dissent.

“Hopefully the whole country will respect the results and the will of the people,” Pita said after voting. Ben Kiatkwankul, partner at government advisory Maverick Consulting Group, said “the election is a test of the conservative roots and the future of progressivism.

“The question is bigger than whether people like or dislike Thaksin or Prayuth. Now it is the old system that is facing the liberalist wave.”