Thaksin looms large as Thai parties make final campaign push

Big rallies in Bangkok marked a final push by candidates in a national election on Sunday aimed at...

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Big rallies in Bangkok marked a final push by candidates in a national election on Sunday aimed at resolving Thailand's sometimes violent six-year political crisis but which many fear will only fuel more turbulence.

Opinion polls overwhelmingly favour the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, figurehead of a red-shirted movement of the rural and urban poor whose protests last year sparked a bloody military crackdown.

The telegenic 44-year-old businesswoman and political novice has electrified supporters as Thailand's first possible elected female leader, vowing to revive Thaksin-style populist policies - from a minimum wage hike to subsidies for farmers.

Many of her supporters want her to go further and bring back Thaksin himself, their red t-shirts often emblazoned with the image of the former telecoms tycoon, who was removed in a 2006 military coup and lives in Dubai to evade jail for graft charges he says were politically motivated.

Recent polls suggest Puea Thai could win at least 240 seats in the 500-seat parliament, but that is no guarantee Yingluck will govern. Most doubt either side will secure an outright majority, opening the way for both to wheel and deal with smaller parties to form a coalition.

"The question is not who will win, but by how much they will win," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"If there is a Puea Thai landslide, it would make things easier for everyone. It would shut up the Democrat Party and make it difficult for the military to intervene."

If Puea Thai wins the most votes but falls short of an absolute majority, however, it might struggle to find willing coalition partners, he said, paving the way for the government to stay in power.

Some see that as a recipe for unrest.

If Yingluck's red-shirted supporters cry foul, there is a risk they could mass again in a reprise of violent protests last year, rallying behind Thaksin, whom they revere as the first politician to address the needs of the rural poor.

"If there is no justice, the conflict is not going to end. The Democrats forming a government if they are runners up will be an example of that," said Veerasak Sanklang, chairman of the red-shirt movement in northeast Khon Kaen province.

ABHISIT'S STRUGGLES

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 46-year-old British-born, Oxford-educated economist, is believed to have the backing of the Bhum Jai Thai Party, which could win as many as 30 seats, enough to create a domino effect with smaller parties anxious to avoid being in opposition.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Abhisit said he was confident of winning 200 seats. That looks optimistic. Most analysts say he will struggle to win more than 170.

"Our assessment of the last few weeks of campaigning shows an improving public response," he said.

Last week, he retooled his campaign and cast the vote as a chance to rid Thailand of the "poison" of Thaksin, a divisive figure reviled by the urban middle class and the royalist elite as much as he is idolised in the rural heartlands.

To his critics, Thaksin is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until a 2006 coup and led a red-shirt protest movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smouldering ruins last year.

But Abhisit is also seen as a polarising premier who steered Thailand perilously close to full civil conflict last year.

After 91 people, mostly civilians, were killed, his denial that troops were responsible for a single death or injury was mocked even in the Democrat stronghold of Bangkok, where a web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on Youtube showing military snipers firing on civilians.

That polarisation, broadly between the urban and rural poor on one side and the Bangkok establishment on the other, has fanned fears that the losers of the election will not accept the results, a tangible risk in a country that has seen 18 coups since the 1930s and five years of sporadic protests.

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha sought this week to allay fears of another coup d'etat if Yingluck's party prevails, stressing the army neutrality, but he is widely accused of taking sides, appearing on television on June 14 to urge the public to vote for "good people."

Many saw that as code for the traditional Bangkok elite of generals, royal advisers and old-money families who back the Democrats and fear Thaksin will exact revenge against those who toppled him if his sister gains power.

Online magazine Asia Times, however, said the palace, military and Thaksin had held "high-level secret talks" in which the military agreed to allow Puea Thai to form a new government unopposed in exchange for a vow from Thaksin not to pursue revenge or legal prosecutions of top military officials.

Thaksin, it said, had also agreed to refrain from intervening in military affairs, including the annual reshuffle that determines the army's leadership.

Officials in both parties have not confirmed the report but Thaksin told Reuters last month that he expected he would have to negotiate with the army to come home.

Abhisit does not have history on his side. While Thaksin scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005, Abhisit's Democrats have not won an election in 19 years.

He has sought a public mandate since coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote many believe was a stitch-up by the army, promising populist, Thaksin-style big-spending policies.

Yingluck has struck a conciliatory tone, vowing not to rush into an amnesty for Thaksin and saying there will be no revenge for the coup.

"Thaksin has not got himself involved with Puea Thai, apart from giving the party his encouragement," Yingluck told reporters.

Her party has issued a statement that stressed amnesty for Thaksin was not a formal policy.

Not many appear convinced, including Thaksin himself, who last month told Reuters he hoped to return home by December.