BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai party leaders promised peace and unity at rain-soaked rallies Friday, two days ahead of an election many fear will do the opposite and inflame a sometimes violent, six-year political crisis.
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s election favor the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the figurehead of the rural and urban poor “red shirts” whose protests last year ended in a bloody army crackdown.
The telegenic 44-year-old businesswoman has electrified supporters as Thailand’s first possible elected woman prime minister, vowing to revive Thaksin-style populist policies ranging from a minimum wage hike to subsidies for farmers.
Many supporters want her to go further and bring back Thaksin himself. Their red T-shirts are 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.
At a stadium packed with about 20,000 people, many under umbrellas in driving rain, Yingluck ticked off a list of promises -- from credit-cards for taxi drivers to a big rise in wages.
“If only you give this woman a chance to serve you.”
Not far away, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned about 15,000 voters not to believe her.
“They say they will move Thailand 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.
Yingluck has been feted like a rock-star at rallies festooned with placards accusing the rich, the establishment and the military of breaking laws with impunity -- grievances that have simmered since the coup that toppled her brother.
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, paving the way for Abhisit to stay on.
Some see that outcome as a recipe for unrest.
“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.
Vejjajiva, 46, a 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 Thursday, Abhisit said he was confident of winning 200 seats. Most analysts say he will struggle to win more than 170.
He has cast the vote as a chance to rid Thailand of the “poison” of Thaksin, a divisive figure reviled by the royalist elite as much as he is idolized in the low-income rural heartlands as the first elected leader to address their needs.
“Two years ago, the red shirts said they would seek to get Thaksin back home. This is still their unchanged agenda,” he told supporters gathered close to parliament.
To his critics, Thaksin is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until the 2006 coup and who led a red-shirt protest movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smoldering ruins last year.
But Abhisit too is seen as a polarizing premier who steered Thailand perilously close to 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. A web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on Youtube showing military snipers firing on civilians.
That polarization, 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’s neutrality. Still, he is widely accused of taking sides after appearing on television on June 14 to urge the public to vote for “good people.”
Those words were seen as code for the Democrats, whose traditional backers of the Bangkok elite, royal advisers, top generals and old-money families 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.
Officials in both parties have not confirmed the report but Thaksin told Reuters in June 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.
Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn, Nick Macfie and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; Editing by Brian Rhoads