- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2011

BANGKOK (AP) — The sister of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led Thailand’s main opposition party to a landslide victory in elections Sunday, heralding an extraordinary political turnaround five tumultuous years after her fugitive billionaire brother was toppled in an army coup.

The vote paves the way for 44-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, who has never held office, to become this Southeast Asian kingdom’s first female prime minister.

A large mandate to govern could help the new government navigate a way out of the crisis that has plagued Thailand since Mr. Thaksin’s 2006 overthrow, but the question remains whether the nation’s elite power brokers, including the monarchy and the army, will accept the result.

Mr. Thaksin was barred from politics in 2007 and convicted on graft charges the next year. The U.S.-educated Ms. Yingluck, whom he has called “my clone,” is widely considered his proxy.

The incumbent premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, conceded defeat Sunday night and said he was ready to become the opposition.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, preliminary results from the Election Commission indicated Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party had a strong lead with 264 of 500 parliament seats, well over the majority needed to form a government. Mr. Abhisit’s Democrats won 160 seats.

Speaking to a throng of cheering supporters at her party headquarters in Bangkok, Ms. Yingluck declined to declare victory until final results are released. But she said: “I don’t want to say that Pheu Thai wins today. It’s a victory of the people.”

In an interview broadcast on the Thai PBS television station, Mr. Thaksin called the preliminary results “a step forward.”

“People are tired of a standstill,” he said from the desert emirate of Dubai, where he lives in exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for graft he says is politically motivated. “They want to see change in a peaceful manner.”

Mr. Thaksin said he did not feel vengeful and was “ready to forgive all.”

The army toppled Mr. Thaksin in 2006, and controversial court rulings removed two of the pro-Thaksin premiers who followed, one of whom won elections intended to restore democracy in 2007. That chain of events paved the way for army-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to assume power — ultimately sparking the massive anti-government protests last year that brought Bangkok to its knees, leaving 90 people dead, 1,800 wounded and the glittering city’s skyline engulfed in flames.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, reiterated his vow last week to stay neutral in the vote, dismissing rumors the military would stage another coup.

“The future depends on whether the traditional elite will be willing to accept the voice of the people,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told the Associated Press.

The more Ms. Yingluck’s party wins by, he said, “the more stable her government will be, the more difficult it will be for the elite to do anything against it.”

Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for Mr. Abhisit’s ruling Democrat party, issued a statement saying simply, “We believe all sides will respect the results.”

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