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Exiled Thai leader due to return

Ousted last year, he has said he would come back only after an election. Voting is tomorrow.

BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a military coup last year, will return from exile Feb. 14, a political ally said yesterday.

Chalerm Yoobamrung, a parliamentary candidate of the People's Power Party, made the announcement at a campaign rally ahead of tomorrow's general election, the first since the coup.

The party is led by Thaksin loyalists, who regrouped after his Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded by a court order this year.

Chalerm said Thaksin, who was abroad at the time of the Sept. 19, 2006, coup, told him of the date in a Thursday night telephone call.

Thaksin, who has lived in Britain since the coup and is visiting Hong Kong, could not be immediately reached for comment. He faces corruption charges if he returns.

According to his spokesman in London, the former leader has said he is likely to return in February but hasn't fixed a date.

Campaigning ended yesterday for the election. Barring last-minute disqualifications, about 5,000 candidates from 39 political parties will be contending for 480 seats in parliament's lower house.

Opinion polls indicate the People's Power Party will get the most seats but fall short of a majority. The Democrat Party, the country's oldest, is expected to finish second.

It seems certain that one or the other will have to form a coalition with smaller parties, which would have significant leverage over who would become prime minister - People's Power Party head Samak Sundaravej, 72; Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, 43, or a third-party compromise choice.

The election, which is supposed to restore democracy, follows almost two years of intense political instability that began with popular demonstrations demanding that Thaksin step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power. The protest culminated in the coup.

Thaksin, whose Thai Rak Thai took power in 2001, was returned to government in 2005 by a landslide victory that gave the party an unprecedented absolute majority.

After the coup, Thaksin, 58, was legally barred from office for five years and charged with corruption.

For the first few months after he was toppled, he was warned by the military to stay away on the grounds that he could endanger public stability. As legal cases proceeded against him, he found it in his own interest to keep away.

In recent months, he has said he could not find justice until there is an elected government, and would return only after an election was held.

Chalerm said Thaksin had told him he would not return immediately after the election, but only after a new government was formed, so he would not be accused of interfering with the process.