Bangkok, May 23 (AP) Residents of the Thai capital Bangkok, in their first opportunity in nine years to vote for their city's governor, have elected an independent politician seen as representing opponents of the country's military-backed government, results released early Monday showed.

Chadchart Sittipunt had been widely predicted by opinion polls to top the field, but significantly outpaced expectations by taking 1,386,215 votes, or almost 52% of the 2,673,696 votes cast in Sunday's election, according to virtually complete but uncertified returns.

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He competed in a field of 31 candidates, with voter turnout just under 61%.

The 55-year-old Chadchart, though running as an independent, was seen by both supporters and opponents as a proxy for the Pheu Thai party, the main Opposition grouping in Parliament. He served as transport minister in a Pheu Thai government in 2012-2014, and stood as one of the party's prime ministerial candidates in the 2019 general election.

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“Now that we've received an order from the people, I would start working right away, visiting communities and areas to see where I could begin my work as soon as I can as a governor," Chadchart told reporters Monday morning. "I have a young, energetic team who are keen to move.”

The independent candidate who was seen as a stand-in for the ruling Palang Pracharath party ran a weak fifth in the race. Former Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang, a retired senior police officer, came in fifth with 214,692 votes, or about 8% of the votes cast.

The 71-year-old Asawin was appointed governor in 2016 by Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander seized power in a 2014 coup and dismissed the previous governor over corruption allegations. Prayuth was returned to office as prime minister following the 2019 election in a coalition government led by the military-backed Palang Pracharath party.

Prayuth, who has been accused of fumbling the response to the coronavirus pandemic, is expected soon to face a no-confidence motion in Parliament, and rivals on his own side have long been rumored to be seeking to remove him. Even if he survives, there must be a general election by early next year.

Political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, noted ahead of the vote that this was the first significant election since the 2014 coup.

“People are hungry to have a say,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “The result, if it clearly goes against ruling Palang Pracharath, would be consequential for Parliament, Prayuth and no-confidence.”

However, while the Bangkok election results are discouraging for Prayuth and the ruling party, they don't constitute a death knell.

While there were ideological reasons influencing many voters, Chadchart is also one of the country's most charismatic politicians, who ran a vigorous campaign compared to the relatively colorless bureaucrat Asawin.

More significantly, voters in Bangkok do not necessarily reflect nationwide trends in Thailand, whose electorate is largely rural. The ruling Palang Pracharath party was able to mobilize many rural voters in the 2019 election with the assistance of influential local and provincial political bosses. (AP)

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