Thailand election: New faces, old names

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, His fans pray that his sister triumphs; the government prays that she loses

As Thailand prepares to go to the polls on Sunday, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey examines the long shadow still cast over the elections by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The poll comes a year after protests against the current government left more than 90 people dead.

Many of the demonstrators were supporters of Mr Thaksin , who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

He is perhaps the most influential - certainly the most divisive - politician Thailand has ever known.

Now there is a new face on the Thai political stage, but the name is familiar.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest sister, is leading the opposition Pheu Thai party challenge.

She is pitting her wits against the British-educated Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who leads the Democrat party.

The Yingluck campaign has been very tightly managed.

Always smiling, she has carefully stuck to her talking points and avoided any hint of appearing confrontational.

She has a simple message to sell: Pheu Thai, under her stewardship, will continue the populist policies of her brother.

That goes down well with opposition supporters.

But Ms Yingluck and her advisers know they have to be careful.

They cannot afford to antagonise Mr Thaksin's powerful enemies.

The Pheu Thai campaign has been smooth. At a typical campaign rally in a field in the northern province of Petchabun, Ms Yingluck received an enthusiastic response from a crowd several thousand strong after a well-rehearsed performance.

They cheered in the right places, threw red roses on to the stage, and mobbed the photogenic political novice as soon as she stepped off the stage.

But campaigning on the family name is one thing. Governing could be quite another.

If she wins, will Ms Yingluck be able to step out of her brother's shadow?

"Of course. I think we can get good ideas from him because he is quite smart and has a vision," she says.

"But in terms of management and leadership I'll be myself."

Increasing acrimony

Despite the fact that her brother is living in exile to avoid a prison sentence for corruption, Ms Yingluck's opponents fear that Mr Thaksin is pulling the strings.

Ever since he was ousted in a military coup five years ago, Thailand has been riven by political protest.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Yingluck Shinawatra's polished performance took the government by surprise

In 2008, anti-Thaksin protesters - dressed predominantly in yellow, hence their nickname "yellow shirts" - laid siege to Bangkok's main airport.

Last year, pro-Thaksin supporters all dressed in red tried to force the current government from power by occupying parts of Bangkok.

The army was eventually sent in to end the occupation, leaving a legacy of bloodshed and bitter recrimination which has infused this election.

The opposition has floated the idea of a general amnesty as a way to promote reconciliation in Thailand.

But critics say that is just a ruse to absolve Mr Thaksin of past crimes and allow him to come home triumphant.

But in a BBC interview earlier, he dismissed such fears.

"It will not be about me. It's about the country and the people," he said.

He also had a message for his detractors, saying: "Don't worry about me. We are Thai. We speak the same language. We can talk, and we can bring the country forward together."

But the longer the election campaign has gone on, the more acrimonious it has become, and the more Mr Thaksin's name dominates.

Even Mr Abhisit seems now to be focusing on the male rather than the female Shinawatra.

Vote for 'good people'

At a rally in the centre of Bangkok, deliberately staged at the site where the red shirts made their last stand, Mr Abhsit urged his supporters to remember last year's political turmoil and vote accordingly.

Image source, AP
Image caption, Abhisit Vejjajiva wants to rid the country of his predecessor's influence

"This election is our best opportunity to get rid of the toxin of Thaksin," he said.

It's a negative message, perhaps, but Mr Abhisit told the BBC that the future of Thailand is at stake.

"We should not encourage a government that puts one man's interests before [the interests of] the country. It brings instability."

Just to add to pre-election jitters, voters were recently given a piece of unsolicited advice from Thailand's powerful army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

He told voters to choose "good people" and warned against repeating the pattern of previous elections.

For the past decade, every election has been won by parties allied to Mr Thaksin.

Was this then a veiled warning from the men in Khaki?

The army has repeatedly insisted that there will be no coup.

But they sent out the same message in 2006, just ahead of their move against Mr Thaksin.

This election has, in effect, become a referendum on Mr Thaksin and the future of Thailand's fragile democracy.

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