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BANGKOK (Reuters) - With her telegenic good looks and powerful political support, Yingluck Shinawatra has shaken up Thailand's first parliamentary election since a wave of political violence last year.
The 44-year-old businesswoman, sister of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has vaulted swiftly into front runner status in Sunday's election for her Puea Thai party, tapping support in the rural north and northeast heartland where her brother remains a populist hero five years after he was toppled in a coup.
After weeks of campaigning, she has surprised sceptics and demonstrated she has Thaksin's star power as she seeks to become Thailand's first female elected leader.
A political neophyte, she is seen widely as a stand-in for her brother, an ethnic Chinese telecommunications tycoon who transformed Thai politics with landslide election wins before he was felled by corruption charges he says were politically motivated.
Yingluck has promised to revive Thaksin's populist policies and raise living standards, vowing to pursue reconciliation to end Thailand's bloody six-year political crisis without seeking vengeance for her brother's overthrow.
Opinion polls are in Puea Thai's favor.
"This has worked out better than expected (for Puea Thai). We were expecting a proxy for Thaksin, but the fact that she is bringing something of her own is a major bonus," said Michael Montesano of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"This is a shrewd move. She has Thaksin's name, she represents him, she appeals to women and it's generated excitement."
At her first appearance in the Thaksin stronghold of the northeast since her nomination on May 16, she was feted by a crowd of thousands, enjoying a rock star reception.
Her supporters idolise Thaksin as the first leader to pay attention to the millions living beyond Bangkok's bright lights. They are putting their hopes on her to bring him back.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party has dismissed Yingluck as a political novice serving as a nominee to allow Thaksin to wrestle back power and return from exile, where he lives to avoid a two-year jail term for graft.
The urbane, Oxford-educated Abhisit has gone on the defensive and has said Puea Thai's call for an amnesty for those guilty of politically related offences is purely for Thaksin's benefit and could trigger a repeat of the protests and violence that killed 91 people in April and May last year.
But Yingluck's supporters believe the U.S.-educated president of property firm SC Asset Corporation could be the one to heal an intractable political malaise characterised by deadly street violence, military crackdowns and governments forced from office.
"She is pretty, smart and gentle and a woman like her can bring about reconciliation," said Kamsai Thongbai, a 56-year-old rice farmer who travelled to Udon Thani's airport to be among the first to greet Yingluck in May.
"She can show Thaksin's opponents that we don't want a fight or revenge. We just want the winner to govern. She is a capable businesswoman, let her help."
Editing by Martin Petty and Nick Macfie