BANGKOK - Big rallies in Bangkok marked a final push by candidates in a national election on Sunday aimed at resolving Thailand's sometimes violent six-year political crisis but which many fear will only fuel more turbulence.
Opinion polls overwhelmingly favor the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, figurehead of a red-shirted movement of the rural and urban poor whose protests last year sparked a bloody military crackdown.
The telegenic 44-year-old businesswoman and political novice has electrified supporters as Thailand's first possible elected female leader, vowing to revive Thaksin-style populist policies - from a minimum wage hike to subsidies for farmers.
Many of her supporters want her to go further and bring back Thaksin himself, their red t-shirts 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.
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, he said, paving the way for the government to stay in power.
Some see that as a recipe for unrest.
If Yingluck's red-shirted supporters cry foul, there is a risk they could mass again in a reprise of violent protests last year, rallying behind Thaksin, whom they revere as the first politician to address the needs of the rural poor.
"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.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 46-year-old 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 on Thursday, Abhisit said he was confident of winning 200 seats. That looks optimistic. Most analysts say he will struggle to win more than 170.
"Our assessment of the last few weeks of campaigning shows an improving public response," he said.
Last week, he retooled his campaign and cast the vote as a chance to rid Thailand of the "poison" of Thaksin, a divisive figure reviled by the urban middle class and the royalist elite as much as he is idolized in the rural heartlands.
To his critics, Thaksin is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until a 2006 coup and led a red-shirt protest movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smoldering ruins last year.