BANGKOK - The ruling pro-military coalition in Thailand on Sunday (Dec 22) appeared to have won another seat in Parliament, with the opposition Pheu Thai party losing in unofficial counts in the by-election for a seat in Khon Kaen in its stronghold in north-eastern Thailand.
Dr Somsak Khun-ngern from Palang Pracharath, the pro-military party and largest component of the governing coalition, beat his main opponent Mr Thanik Maseepitak from Pheu Thai, the biggest force in the opposition.
Unofficial results with all the votes counted gave Dr Somsak 40,252 votes, 2,242 more than his opponent.
In the March general election, Dr Somsak lost by a narrow margin of just over 3,000 votes. But the winning candidate from Pheu Thai, Mr Nawat Tohcharoensuk, was disqualified in September after he was sentenced to death for masterminding a murder six years ago.
The result, if confirmed, will provide a further safety margin for the government in the 500-seat Lower House, where it currently holds 253 seats, with an impending no-confidence parliamentary motion as well as the second and final readings of the annual budget Bill scheduled for January.
"This is a good sign for the government. The people must have seen what we have done," said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Two more by-elections are slated to be held next year and the opposition, with 244 lawmakers, risks losing even more seats.
The Future Forward party, the third largest in Parliament in the March election, has expelled four of its MPs for repeatedly voting against their own party in the House. It was not immediately clear if they would be jumping ship across the aisle.
Future Forward already suffered a blow when its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was disqualified as an MP last month over media share ownership, an electoral law violation.
Future Forward is also facing possible dissolution over Mr Thanathorn's controversial loans to the party and for allegedly seeking to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.
The Election Commission (EC), in the meantime, has said that it is in the process of investigating reports of vote buying in Khon Kaen and allegations of other irregularities in the poll.
We Watch, a local non-profit network of election observers, has reported at least 10 cases of irregularities, including at least one instance of someone dead since 1985 turning up in the electoral roll.
"We will investigate all the reports. If it is found that officials are in the wrong, they will be punished. It will not take us long," EC chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong told reporters.
"Overall, the election went smoothly," he added.
Pheu Thai won some 84 seats in the north-eastern region in the March general election, while Palang Pracharath won 11 seats.
"Today's results symbolise Pheu Thai Party's dwindling domination and Palang Pracharath's greater influence in the region," said Dr Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.
"One important factor may be the damage done to Pheu Thai's reputation with its previous candidate's murder conviction. It could also be the government's populist policies that have won the locals over," he added.
Dr Somsak is a former executive of Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, a predecessor of Pheu Thai. He was banned from politics for 10 years when TRT was dissolved in 2007 over electoral violations.