Yingluck Shinawatra speaks to the media at the Pue Thai party headquarters… (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)
Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand — Thailand's main opposition party won a fractious election Sunday, paving the way for the nation's first female prime minister and the possible return from exile of her controversial brother, as disenfranchised voters laid down a new challenge to the nation's political establishment.
Several hundred supporters mobbed party headquarters as word spread that the Puea Thai party, led by political novice Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, had secured 264 of parliament's 500 seats in preliminary results. The ebullient crowd chanted, danced, blocked traffic and set off fireworks.
"There is a lot more hard work to do," she told cheering fans. "There are many things to accomplish to make reconciliation possible."
Shinawatra supporters hope this seeming victory will endure, having seen past elections undermined by judicial decisions, military pressure and parliamentary maneuvers engineered by royalist conservatives.
Yingluck is an unabashed stand-in for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has called the shots and footed the bills for her party's campaign from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The controversial Thaksin is in self-imposed exile, avoiding a two-year sentence on corruption charges after he was ousted from power in a 2006 military coup.
"I like Yingluck, and it doesn't bother me that Thaksin will be the real one running things," said Sommurk Keawnoi, 51, selling pineapple topped with fiery chili flakes from a wood-and-glass cart in Bangkok's Klong Toey area, a Thaksin stronghold.
"Those were good times when he was prime minister," she added. "I'm just afraid that, with her victory, dark hands will take away our rights again."
Yingluck, aware of the criticism that she is, in her brother's own words, his "clone," said Sunday that she took her mandate seriously. "I'll put the country before me and my family," she told the local media.
An open question is whether the nation's powerbrokers, led by the army and the monarchy, will accept the results after backing incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party. With 98% of the votes counted, his party had secured 160 seats.
Thailand, a nation of 66 million that markets itself as the "land of smiles," has suffered a destructive social schism over the last six years between haves and have-nots. This culminated in street demonstrations and a bloody crackdown in May 2010 with more than 90 people killed, more than 1,800 wounded and glitzy shopping centers engulfed in flames.
In an interview broadcast on the Thai PBS network Sunday, Thaksin said he did not feel vengeful, was ready to "forgive all" and favored reconciliation.
Many expect the losers in Sunday's election, which broadly pitted farmers and rural poor against "old money" elites, to eventually take to the streets, sparking another cycle of violence and economic dislocation.
"There's absolutely, absolutely, absolutely going to be fighting," said Tip, a 23-year-old graphic designer who favored the Democrat Party. She declined to give her full name. "Rule of law in Thailand isn't strong enough to endure all this."
Polling stations across Bangkok, including the Suneepittayu Elementary School and Phra Khanong, saw voting close on time and the count proceed without incident.
Jidapar Prasaertcheawchan emerged from the station with her two adult sons. She voted Democrat; they voted Puea Thai. "We weren't going to tell our mother we voted Puea Thai, until this interview," said Somsak, 29. "But I think Puea Thai is more advanced."
One disappointment was the election's lack of discussion on policies, analysts said, as blatant populism and promises of free laptops, pensions for all and credit cards for farmers dominated the airwaves.
"There are no clear policies and strategies on what they will do to eradicate poverty, improve people's welfare better, help small businesses," said Pranee Thiparat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "It's all short term."
Attention now shifts to how the winning party will govern. It's expected to name a prime minister — almost certainly Yingluck — within a week and announce its coalition partners within two weeks. It's also expected to try to engineer Thaksin's return to Thailand, a deeply divisive move, perhaps linked to a broader amnesty.
Street violence is almost inevitable, although there could be a six-month honeymoon before it erupts, said Paul Chambers, senior researcher at Chiang Mai's Payap University.
"The soap opera of Thai politics could begin anew around December," he said, adding that he didn't expect the military to mount a coup.
"The generals will attempt to use more subtle means to get rid of Thaksin, such as the courts or election commission," he said. "There've been a lot of shenanigans."
Simon Roughneen is a special correspondent.