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Divided Thais vote in crucial polls

world Updated: Jul 03, 2011 10:34 IST

Thailand voted on Sunday in a hard-fought election pivotal to the future of the divided kingdom after years of political turmoil pitting the ruling elite against the disaffected rural poor.

The poll is the first major electoral test for the government since mass Red Shirt opposition protests paralysed Bangkok last year, triggering a military crackdown that left more than 90 people dead.

More than 170,000 police are being deployed to protect polling stations for the tense vote, which could herald a comeback for the Red Shirts' hero, the fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Toppled in a 2006 military coup and now living in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for corruption, the former billionaire telecoms tycoon has tapped his youngest sister to run in his place.

Yingluck Shinawatra, a telegenic businesswoman tipped by many to become Thailand's first ever female prime minister, is a 44-year-old political novice described by Thaksin as his "clone".

Polls have shown the mother-of-one enjoying a comfortable lead over the ruling Democrats, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is fighting for his political life after less than three years in office.

Yingluck was one of the first to vote at a school in Bangkok. Wearing a purple blouse and black trousers, she smiled and showed her ID card to the television cameras before casting her ballot.

Her older brother remains a hugely divisive figure, adored by millions of rural voters but hated by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to the revered monarchy.

Abhisit has accused the opposition of trying to "whitewash" the former premier's crimes, urging voters "to get rid of the poison of Thaksin."

The opposition Puea Thai party has proposed an amnesty for convicted politicians if it wins -- a move apparently aimed at bringing Thaksin home, where he faces terrorism charges in connection with last year's protests.

Many doubt the Bangkok-based elite in government, military and palace circles would allow the one-time owner of Manchester City football club to come back as a free man.