December 12, 2007 2:00 am
On a chilly recent evening in Thailand's rural heartland, veteran politician Chalerm Yoobamrung, a senior People's Power party member, delivered a simple message to 5,000 villagers listening politely at a low-key election rally.
In a fiery speech, Mr Chalerm said that supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra - the former prime minister ousted in last year's military coup - should vote for the PPP in parliamentary elections on December 23 so that they could help bring the exiled populist home.
"If PPP is the government . . . I will bring Thaksin back to Thailand," Mr Chalerm declared to cheers. "I, Chalerm, will fly, myself, to get him. But whether or not I can do it is up to you. If you want Thaksin back, vote PPP."
In Thailand's rural -villages, the constituency from which Mr Thaksin -garnered much of his support thanks to his development policies, it is a message that resonates.
"Thaksin did what he promised and his party members worked hard in their areas," said a teacher listening in but too fearful of potential repercussions to give her name. "Life is harder in so many ways after the coup."
As Thai voters approach an election intended to restore democracy and -stability after two politically turbulent years, the spectre of Mr Thaksin looms large. His future is seemingly the only substantive issue for voters in an otherwise tepid race.
The main contestants for power all have platforms apparently inspired by Mr Thaksin's now defunct Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party, promising greater social services for the rural and working-class poor and big new infrastructure spending.
However, lurking behind this seeming uniformity of ideas are deep divisions over Mr Thaksin himself.
While the government that was installed by the military claims to be seeking his extradition to try him on corruption charges after freezing about $1.9bn (€1.3bn, £930m) of his family's assets, few Thais believe the military, or its allies, are seriously pursuing the matter, or have any real desire to see Mr Thaksin return to Thai soil.
By contrast, the PPP - made up for the most part of 200 former Thai Rak Thais MPs - could be expected to protect Mr Thaksin's interests and pave the way for his return not as a suspect but as a respected leader.
"This election is a referendum on Thaksin coming back home," said Suwai Prammanee, a former senator running for parliament on a PPP ticket.
According to polls and independent analysts, the PPP looks to be on track to emerge as the largest party in the 480-seat parliament, much to the chagrin of the military coup leaders.
Since grabbing power, the coup leaders have sought to discredit Mr Thaksin and -dismantle his party's once formidable electoral machine. He has been charged with abuse of power in connection with a land deal and, in May, a tribunal dissolved the Thai Rak Thai and banned 111 of its senior members, including Mr Thaksin, from politics for five years.
Widely seen as a proxy for Mr Thaksin and the old Thai Rak Thai, the PPP now appears to have a strong edge over the Democrats, formerly the main opposition, and the For the Motherland party, led by Thai Rak Thai defectors.
Within Thailand, debate is raging over whether the army would actually allow the PPP to take the reins of government. Anupong Paojinda, the new army chief, has publicly denied that the military would stage what would amount to another coup should the PPP win at the polls.
But election officials have threatened to dissolve the PPP after authorities found videos of Mr Thaksin endorsing the party and analysts believe the military could rig the election.
In a recently leaked secret memo top brass urged subordinates to work against a PPP electoral victory.
After the vote, analysts say the military could pressure smaller parties not to enter a coalition government with the party. "The military will do everything that it can to prevent the PPP from coming to power," says Thitinan Pongsuhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist. "Any equation with the PPP in power is just too risky for them."
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