Voters in Thailand cast ballots Sunday for the first time since the coup last year that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Exit polls show the former leader's supporters are headed for a victory, something analysts say could plunge the country into a new political crisis. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.
Thaksin Shinawatra watched the poll results from afar in Hong Kong, but his presence was felt here as voters cast ballots for prime minister and members of the new 480-seat parliament on Sunday.
The election pitted the two major parties against each other - the longstanding Democrat Party, implicitly backed by the military, versus the People Power Party, dominated by supporters of Mr. Thaksin. Some of his faithful have called for his return and want him exonerated of the corruption charges he faces.
Fifty-three-year-old Bangkok businessman Naporn was among the voters Sunday at a polling station in front of the capital's Democracy Monument. He says his choice for prime minister - between the Democrat Party's Abhisit Vejjajiva and the PPP's Samak Vejjajiva Sundaravej - boiled down to a decision between the military and Mr. Thaksin. He says Abhisit has the power of the military behind him, while Samak has Mr. Thaksin.
The former prime minister retains a strong following among Thailand's poor who liked his populist policies. Anti-Thaksin forces contend that a PPP victory would mean more of the rampant corruption that they say plagued the Thaksin administration.
Political analysts say this election battle included the same forces that were at play during last year's military coup. They warn the elections may further expose divisions and ignite a new political crisis.
"At the very root of this crisis is a dichotomy, a disparity between Bangkok and the rest of Thailand, between the countryside and the urban areas," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of politics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "This is the gist of the crisis. It was the driving force of the coup. Basically, Thaksin exposed and exploited Thailand's underbelly in the countryside. He was elected and reelected on a landslide and he became so popular that he became a threat to the establishment."
Mr. Thaksin was accused of corruption, abuse of power, and of disrespecting the revered Thai king. The coup that removed the former Prime Minister was the 18th in the 75 years since Thailand made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.
Voters interviewed Sunday expressed concern that a PPP victory could plunge Thailand into a deepened political crisis. The military leaders who ousted Mr. Thaksin say they will accept a PPP victory, but there are questions about whether the military and anti-Thaksin forces are indeed prepared to accept his return - personally or by proxy - to Thai politics.
Overall, the polling on Sunday was peaceful.
The government deployed thousands of soldiers to keep watch, mainly in the south of the kingdom, which has been the scene of a long-running Muslim separatist insurgency that has killed thousands of people.