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Analysis: Thai elite can no longer dismiss rural majority, or Thaksin's continuing influence
BANGKOK (AP) ' Thailand's landslide election result underlines the enduring influence of fugitive, populist ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, but also confirms that the rural majority he awakened can never again be dismissed.
As his allies prepare to take power, with a strong mandate from Thailand's countryside and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister-elect, they must tread lightly to restore equilibrium to a polarized nation and avoid any turbulent backlash from the military-backed elite in Bangkok that they have challenged.
"Winning an election in Thailand ... is very different from actually governing a divided society in which powerful interests are loath to give up their privileges," said anthropologist Charles Keyes of the University of Washington.
Much will depend on Thaksin himself, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year prison term for conflict of interest. The billionaire businessman wants to return ' and perhaps get back some of the ($1.53 billion) of his assets seized by the government.
Yingluck could ease the way, but the merest hint of rehabilitating the former leader sends his opponents into a rage.
Yingluck, 44, who jumped into politics this year from her brother's business empire, has so far ducked talking about specific plans for Thaksin's return, and has said her priority will be "how to lead the country to unity and reconciliation."
Thaksin's ouster, by a military that accused him of corruption and disrespect for the monarchy, sparked several years of sometimes-violent struggle between supporters seeking to restore his political legacy, and opponents contending he was a corrupt scoundrel intent on autocratic rule.
His loyalists won a 2007 election, but the Bangkok elite dismissed the outcome as bogus democracy, saying Thaksin's political machinery won by purchasing votes or duping uninformed farmers in the provinces.
But rural and poor Thais have continued to embrace Thaksin as the first leader to take their interests to heart, with programs such as subsidized housing and health care after he first won office in 2001.
The pro-Thaksin forces, this time under the banner of the Pheu Thai Party, came back even stronger for the second election held since he was deposed. In Sunday's vote, they won 265 seats in the 500-seat lower house of parliament, as compared with their nearest rival, the ruling Democrats, who won just 159.
"The lesson is that the persons who believe they make the best decisions for Thailand ' the unelected at the head of the military and in other institutions that have long had a hand in political decision-making ' are not with most voting Thais," said Kevin Hewison, a Thai scholar at the University of North Carolina.
"Even with a third-string team, the people have chosen (Pheu Thai) in what for Thailand is a landslide. That's an emphatic statement about the wrongs that have been done since the 2006 coup. It remains to be seen if the 'unelected bosses' are listening."
The military, which has launched 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s, has insisted it will not intervene this time.
The huge electoral mandate handed to Pheu Thai would make that awkward ' but not impossible ' and the messy aftermath of the last coup already has left it discredited among many Thais.
Coups in Thailand used to be cut-and-dried affairs, with the losers skulking off to quiet retirement.
Thaksin, with a surfeit of pride and money, broke with tradition by challenging his ouster, even though he was demonized by his usurpers, banned from politics for five years along with key lieutenants and forced to fight from abroad.
Against those odds, his loyalists won the 2007 election, only to be unseated a year later by a combination of judicial rulings, military pressure and parliamentary maneuvering that brought the Democrats to power.
Thaksin's supporters blamed it all on a conspiracy by Thailand's traditional ruling elite ' the military and royalists ' determined not to lose privilege and power to an uppity businessman. Thaksin's foes castigated rural voters as uneducated fools for backing Thaksin and his allies.
The conflict turned into something akin to a class war.
Thaksin's supporters coalesced into the "Red Shirt" movement, staging protests last year in Bangkok that were crushed by the military and ended with more than 90 dead and 1,800 wounded.
Thaksin's supporters were outgunned in the streets, but prevailed by force of numbers in the polling booths last weekend.
The Shinawatra brand still shines in much of the country, burnished by campaign promises ' A credit card for every farmer! A tablet computer for every schoolchild!
Some question whether a Pheu Thai government can afford to keep its promises. "In our view, there is downside risk on the government's fiscal position" if it implements many of its announced policies, the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's said this week.
"In all likelihood, the immediate aftermath of the election is going to be more about Thaksin," said Hewison. "The group who designate themselves 'the people who hate Thaksin' are going to be hard at work.
"For Pheu Thai, much now depends on Thaksin being less aggressive and headstrong than he has been in the past. Has he learned to be more patient?"