Thailand enters calm before election storm

Political campaigning in Thailand drew to a close on Saturday, taking a day to cool off before an election...

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Political campaigning in <place w:st="on"><country-region w:st="on">Thailand</country-region> drew to a close on Saturday, taking a day to cool off before an election which could exacerbate the country's six-year-old political crisis just as easily as end it.

Opinion polls point to a win by the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, over the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The risk of turbulence lies in the margin of a Puea Thai win and the reaction of its red shirt supporters, mostly rural and urban poor whose protests last year prompted a bloody crackdown. Key as well will be the response of the military, which has a history of intervening in Thai politics.

"It's almost certain the Puea Thai will win, the question is by how much," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the <placetype w:st="on">Institute of <placename w:st="on">Southeast Asian Studies in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Singapore</country-region>.

If they win by a landslide, it would be a "slap in the face" of the Democrats, but would likely rile the military which has a record of launching coups when riled, he said.

There also is the possibility that the Puea Thai party has reached a deal with the military -- allowing them to rule in return for not pursuing the generals responsible for last year's violence, which killed 91 people, mostly red shirts.

If the margin of the win is small, Puea Thai would have to garner the support of smaller parties. Their backing could be contingent on Thaksin serving jail time for corruption as part of any plan to bring him back from self-exile in <city w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Dubai.

There is also the possibility of the Democrats teaming up with smaller parties to get the necessary majority, an outcome sure to bring the red shirts back out on to the streets.

At a stadium packed with about 20,000 people, many under umbrellas in driving rain, Yingluck on Friday called for reconciliation and promised an investigation of last year's violence.

"If only you give this woman a chance to serve you," she said.

Abhisit warned about 15,000 voters not to believe her.

"They say they will move <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Thailand</country-region> forward, but I don't believe they will do so on your behalf," he said, before assuring supporters he would heal rifts in Thai society.

Amnesty International called on whoever wins to end repression, unlawful use of lethal force and intimidation of peaceful dissidents.

"More than a year on, no security forces have been held to account for the deaths on <city w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Bangkok's streets," it said. "Security forces must strictly adhere to international standards in response to any demonstrations, while protesters themselves should not resort to violence."

Election days in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Thailand</country-region> are traditionally dry affairs, with alcohol sales banned from 6 pm on Saturday to midnight on Sunday and the go-go bars closed.

A spoof Web site called "Not the Nation" wondered how the city's foreigners would cope, and whether Thai police were bracing for a weekend of violence from "angry, sober alcoholic expatriates."