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Final count of 1st vote since coup leaves Thailand divided

FILE - In this Sunday, March 24, 2019, file photo, an election officer counts votes at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand's Election Commission has officially endorsed the results from the country's March 24 general election, declaring that the Pheu Thai party associated with fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra topped the field by winning 136 constituencies.

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Election Commission on Tuesday officially endorsed results from the country's March 24 general election, declaring that the Pheu Thai party associated with fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra topped the field by winning 136 constituencies.

The commission said the rival military-backed Palang Pracharath party ran second with 97 seats.

It is still unclear who will form the next government, as both of the top two competitors are seeking partners to achieve a parliamentary majority.

The Election Commission came under heavy criticism for releasing delayed and confusing preliminary vote totals, and has been accused of tilting in favor of the military.

There are 500 seats in the House of Representatives, and the committee endorsed 349 of the 350 won by direct vote. The remaining 150 so-called party list seats will be awarded based on a proportion of the overall nationwide vote derived from a complicated formula, and the commission must allocate them by Thursday. It has hedged on exactly how the formula will be applied, making it difficult to project the total allocation of seats in the lower house.

One constituency seat was left unendorsed after the Pheu Thai candidate who topped the vote was disqualified for breaking an election rule by donating money to a Buddhist monk during the campaign.

Thaksin, a billionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications, became prime minister in 2001 as the head of a party he founded. His populist policies won him support among the less well-off rural majority but drew the wrath of the country's traditional ruling class, led by the military and conservative royalists, who felt his electoral strength threatened their influence.

After protests in Bangkok accusing him of corruption and abuse of power, he was ousted by a 2006 military coup, and went into exile to avoid going to prison on a conflict of interest conviction. But his ouster set off a long and sometimes violent battle for power between his supporters and opponents, and pro-Thaksin parties were returned to power twice by elections. A government formed by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted by another coup in 2014.

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Deputy Election Commission Secretary-General Sawang Boonmee cautioned that the endorsements announced Tuesday could be withdrawn after investigations into more than 400 complaints are resolved.

When asked when the commission will finish investigating all cases, he said "we will try to investigate as fast as possible." He said the commission has up to a year after election day to order new votes where candidates are disqualified. The commission's critics fear it will disqualify mainly members of the Pheu Thai party and its would-be allies.

Aside from any possible mismanagement by the commission, the election was controversial because the military junta that has ruled Thailand since taking power in a 2014 coup changed the constitution and other laws to create an electoral system that severely disadvantaged parties without links to the military.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander staged the coup in 2014 and since then has served as prime minister, is the candidate selected by Palang Pracharath to take the job again after the election.

Prayuth should easily be able to return to office because the prime minister will be selected by a joint vote of the lower house and the appointed Senate, which represents conservative interests and essentially will be chosen by the junta. However, if his rivals control the lower house, he will have a hard time passing laws and getting a budget approved.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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