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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra's red-shirted supporters plan to rally on Sunday in a growing challenge to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, underlining Thailand's deep political divisions.
Analysts say the fugitive billionaire's ability to continue to flex his political muscle while in self-imposed exile signals trouble for Abhisit's fragile coalition government and is worsening Thailand's four-year political crisis.
More big rallies by the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) will turn up the heat on Abhisit as he struggles to revive the economy and heal social rifts while fending off attacks from inside and outside his divided six-party coalition.
Analysts say Thaksin's goal is to damage Abhisit's credibility with claims of illegitimacy and incompetence, while convincing his supporters he is still a political heavyweight, ready to fight for democracy and the rights of the rural poor.
"The show is not over yet for Thaksin," said Chanthana Banprasirichote, a politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The protests could go on for a long time and present more problems for Abhisit."
The "red shirts" continue to demand that Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call a general election. But with public opinion of him and his Democrat Party low, or lukewarm at best, such a move at this time could be political suicide.
The UDD and the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party look to be gaining momentum, despite the assumption they would fizzle out after violent protests in April that damaged their credibility. Abhisit is likely to stall on elections for as long as possible and try to win over some of Thaksin's support base.
"He will try build as big a support base with the aim of forming a government in his own right in the next election," said Jacob Ramsay, an analyst at Control Risks, an independent, specialist risk consultancy.
The yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has stayed off the streets since its occupation of Bangkok's airports last year, which stranded more than 200,000 visitors and contributed to a 30 percent drop in tourist arrivals this year.
Despite the failed April 17 assassination attempt on one of its leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, the "yellow shirts," who are backed by the urban middle classes, royalists and the military, have vowed to hold off on demonstrations. Although out of sight, they still remain a well-funded and formidable force.
The PAD has formed its own party, the New Politics Party, but analysts say it is unclear who will vote for it since most PAD backers are traditionally supporters of Abhisit's Democrats.
Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep