Bangkok, Dec. 23 (Reuters): The party backing ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra easily won the most seats in todays election, a stunning rejection of the coup that booted out the telecom billionaire in 2006.
But an outright majority eluded the People Power Party (PPP), triggering hard bargaining among politicians.
With PPP winning 228 of 480 seats in the parliament, analysts say the army and Thailands old elite are likely to be calling in every favour possible to stop Thaksin making a comeback by proxy.
Abrasive PPP leader Samak Sundaravej said Thaksin had phoned from exile to congratulate him on the result, which presented a major problem for the army after the vote proved its campaign to consign Thaksin to political oblivion had failed.
It is a victory for this country, Samak told a news conference, adding that he would certainly be Prime Minister. This country lost its freedom on September 19 last year for no good reason, he said.
The US, which had suspended millions of dollars in aid to Thailand after the coup, called on all sides to respect the outcome of the election.
Although some analysts said a strong PPP showing could trigger another coup, others believe the army-appointed government is more likely to try at first to stymie the PPP by disqualifying candidates for vote fraud.
It depends how many red cards they have to issue, said Kevin Hewison, a Thai expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If its 40 or 50, it may be difficult, but if its only 10 or 20, they might be able to do it.
The Election Commission said it had received more than 750 complaints, but was taking only 157 of them seriously. It was not clear how many of these could lead to disqualifications.
Samak said he did not foresee another coup since the new army chief was a good guy committed to keeping out of politics.
The army would prefer a government led by the Democrats, the main opposition during Thaksins five years in power, although most analysts agree such a coalition would be weak and unlikely to last beyond a year.
The Democrats, led by Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, the man foreign investors want to see as the next Prime Minister, looked set to take around 162 seats.
Financial markets hope the return of an elected government will signal the end of a period of disappointing economic growth, likely to fall towards four per cent this year from 5.1 per cent in 2006 and the lowest rate in six years.
At polling stations across Bangkok, voters said they were just tired of a political mess now in its third year.
It doesnt really matter which party gets in just as long as we have a government as soon as possible, said Anunt, 60.
Both the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps have said they would take to the streets if they felt the other side had gained an upper hand in the polls unfairly. Major street protests could trigger another military foray into politics.
Last years coup was the 18th in 75 years of on-off democracy in Thailand. Thaksins Thai Rak Thai party has since been dissolved and he and 110 party members barred from politics for five years.
The uncertainty has worried revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who urged soldiers and police to use their spiritual strength to pull the nation out of the long-running crisis.