Amid allegations of "ghost ballots" in Thailand's election, the party trying to bring Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha back to power is jostling with one linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a race to form a governing coalition.
Preliminary results gave neither side a commanding lead.
The Pheu Thai Party, which headed the government ousted by the 2014 military coup, bagged 137 constituencies out of 350 that were contested on Sunday, according to preliminary figures released by the Election Commission yesterday. Meanwhile, the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party won 97.
Another 150 seats in the 500-member Lower House will be allocated later, based on the proportion of all votes won by each party.
A tally of 94 per cent of votes cast, however, showed that Palang Pracharath had secured 7.7 million votes, and Pheu Thai 7.2 million. In third place was the Future Forward Party, with 5.3 million votes.
Although it is the number of seats held by each party that will determine who will dominate the Lower House, Palang Pracharath leader Uttama Savanayana declared yesterday: "The party that can win the most votes has the right to form the government… We have started talking with other parties that share the same ideology and policy to form the government."
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai said it had opened negotiations to form its own coalition. Its de facto leader and prime minister candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan said: "The formation of this government must answer to the will of the people and move the country towards a more democratic direction."
The stridently anti-junta Future Forward, which bagged 30 constituency seats, announced its readiness to join her coalition.
Official results are expected only in May, as the Election Commission investigates alleged irregularities. Pheu Thai has demanded a probe into some three million "ghost ballots". In both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces, it alleged, the number of ballots cast exceeded the number of eligible voters by more than 400,000.
On Twitter, "Election Fraud" in Thai was one of the top trending hashtags.
To form a government, Pheu Thai will have to surmount the inbuilt numerical advantage that a junta-aligned Senate gives to parties supporting Mr Prayut.
Under the Constitution enacted after the 2014 coup, 250 appointed senators, mostly handpicked by the ruling junta, will vote jointly with the elected 500 Lower House members on their choice of prime minister. This means that pro-Prayut parties need only muster 126 seats to get him chosen as premier.
Analysts warn, however, that this arrangement throws policymaking into uncertain territory as the minority government may struggle to get future laws passed.
Dr Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok's Institute, thinks Palang Pracharath is more likely going to aim for a Lower House majority to bring more stability.
The kingdom's benchmark SET Index fell 20.38 points, or 1.24 per cent, yesterday.
Pheu Thai belongs to a political faction linked to the deposed Thaksin which has won every single election since 2001. Royalist military factions, however, revile him for his populist policies.
This bitter divide had consumed the kingdom until recently, with the entry of some seven million first-time voters with only faint memories of the past turmoil.
On the eve of the election, the Royal Household Bureau issued a statement on behalf of King Maha Vajiralongkorn urging voters to support "good people".