BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's leading parties wooed possible partners for a coalition government yesterday, a day after allies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came out on top in the country's first election since his ouster in a September 2006 military coup.
The pro-Thaksin People's Power Party won just under half the seats in the 480-member lower house of parliament, delivering a powerful message that the exiled prime minister's mostly rural supporters would be happy to see him return despite allegations that he was corrupt and abused power.
Not so happy to see Thaksin return would be those who deposed him - the military, Bangkok's educated middle class, and Thailand's elite, including elements around the monarchy who felt threatened by his accumulation of power.
Under an interim military-installed government that succeeded Thaksin, they changed the constitution to limit the influence of big parties and sought to demonize him as a corrupt destroyer of democracy. His return could undo their efforts and put their own positions in jeopardy.
Ahead of the vote, rumors even swirled that the military would stage a new coup if faced with the prospect of a Thaksin comeback, though the army commander vowed to abide by the election results.
What his foes failed to do, the election results showed, was win over Thaksin's followers in the rural north and poor northeast.
Those supporters remained loyal in gratitude for the former leader's populist programs, including universal health care and generous village development funds implemented when he held office from 2001 to 2006.
"This is the people's decision," said Prinya Thaewanaraemitkul, who teaches law at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "The military has to accept that people disagree with the coup."
Thaksin was abroad at the time of his bloodless ouster, and has since lived in exile, mostly in London. He is legally barred from office, his Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved by the courts, and he has been charged with a slew of corruption-related crimes.
But by capturing 233 House seats, according to the latest figures from the state Election Commission, the pro-Thaksin PPP - led by former Thai Rak Thai members - is in the best position to form a governing coalition.
PPP Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee said yesterday that his party had won the agreement of enough other smaller parties to form a stable majority coalition with 280 to 300 seats.
There would be "no problem in forming a government," he said at a news conference. The House is supposed to convene within one month of the election.
Even if the PPP has concluded a coalition deal, it could fall apart if enough of the party's candidates are disqualified for electoral violations such as vote-buying.