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Edgy Thailand votes

Thailand votes on Sunday in a general election that could trigger a new crisis after six years of turmoil...

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters during a rally held inside their fortified camp in the central financial district in downtown Bangkok. Picture: AFP.

Thailand votes on Sunday in a general election that could trigger a new crisis after six years of turmoil centred on a man revered by the poor and living in luxury, and exile, in the Middle East.

Opinion polls point to a win by Puea Thai, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, over the Democrat Party of Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

But the election is all about a vote for or against a man not on the ballot -- former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's elder brother, in self-appointed exile in Dubai after being deposed in a military coup in 2006.

His "red shirt" supporters brought the central district of Bangkok to a standstill in two months of protests last year, shutting businesses and five-star hotels and setting buildings on fire before an army crackdown in which 91 people were killed.

Telecoms tycoon Thaksin is hugely popular with the red shirt supporters of the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party, but despised by the ruling Democrat Party elite who want him to return and stand trial for corruption.

Throughout the six-week campaign, both sides have presented similar populist campaigns of subsidies for the poor, improved health care benefits and infrastructure investment including high-speed rail systems across the country.

But a risk of violence lies in the margin of a Puea Thai win and the reaction of the red shirts. Key as well will be the response of the military, which has a habit of intervening in Thai politics through coup d'etat.

The election will be Thailand's 26th since it became a democracy in 1932, ending seven centuries of absolute monarchy. It has since been governed by 17 constitutions and has experienced 18 military coups, either actual or attempted.

The latest, in 2006, overthrew Thaksin.

Former Public Health Minister Phra Rakkiart warned Sunday's election would go down as the "dirtiest in history".

"Canvassers sell lottery tickets to voters and offer them a big reward if their candidates win in the election," the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying, adding that election fraud was ingrained.

The fear of a return to violence is real.

According to some reports, the Puea Thai camp is in talks with the generals on some way of working together should it emerge victorious. Puea Thai would be allowed to govern and the military top brass would remain in place, with early reshuffles limited to middle ranks.

But if Puea Thai gets a majority and is barred from governing, Thailand faces a resurgence of the violent protests that paralyzed parts of Bangkok last April and May.

"If they cheat there will be protests in Bangkok for sure. It will be the same as the Rajaprasong protest," said Tan Chaithep, chief assistant of the red shirt village of Ban Nong Hoo Ling in the heart of red shirt territory in the northeast.

The Rajaprasong intersection was the focal point of last year's demonstrations.

To guard against election fraud, some 180,000 police will be on duty. Thais have been urged to vote early to avoid possible heavy rain and flooding.