The sister of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra led her party in a landslide election win on Sunday, exit polls showed, a victory for red-shirt protesters who clashed with the army last year.
Yingluck Shinawatra was swarmed by flashing cameras and journalists after exit polls showed her Puea Thai (For Thais) party winning a clear majority of 500 seats in parliament, paving the way for the 44-year-old businesswoman and political novice to become the country's first female prime minister.
"Mr Thaksin called me to congratulate me and encourage me," Yingluck said of her brother, a billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup who now lives in Dubai to avoid jail for graft charges he says were politically motivated.
"He told me that there is still much hard work ahead of us," she told reporters.
An exit poll by Bangkok's Suan Dusit University, considered the most historically reliable, showed Puea Thai winning 313 seats with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party taking just 152. Bangkok's Assumption University (ABAC) put the number of seats won by the opposition at 299.
Democrat Party spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks urged voters to wait for official results. Yingluck's supporters erupted in a roar of cheers as the results were broadcast on television.
"Number one Yingluck", some shouted. "Prime Minister Yingluck" screamed others, as party members slapped each other on the back.
The results, if accurate, are a rebuke for Thailand's traditional royalist establishment of generals and old-money families in Bangkok who have backed Abhisit, a British-born, Oxford-educated economist who struggled to connect with working-class Thais even as he was lauded by investors.
At the heart of Yingluck's support is the red-shirt movement that accuses the rich, the establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity - grievances that have simmered since a 2006 coup overthrew her brother.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005 by appealing to the rural poor with populist policies, from cheap credit to universal healthcare.
Yingluck electrified her supporters and ran a disciplined campaign.
Abhisit, 46, has warned of instability ahead with a Yingluck win, blames the red shirts for last year's violence and casts Thaksin as an authoritarian crony capitalist.
But after 91 people, mostly civilians, were killed, his denial that troops were responsible for a single death or injury was mocked even in the Democrat stronghold of Bangkok. A web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on Youtube showing military snipers firing on civilians.
Abhisit's backers -- the royalist establishment and urban middle class -- want Thaksin to serve a two-year prison term for conflict of interest offences. They say Yingluck is a proxy for her brother and would clear the way for Thaksin's return.
Abhisit had hoped to win a mandate from the people after coming to power in a controversial 2008 parliamentary vote when a pro-Thaksin ruling party was dissolved by the courts. His Democrats have not won an election in nearly 20 years.
Throughout the six-week campaign, the two sides have presented similar populist campaigns of subsidies for the poor, improved healthcare benefits and infrastructure investment including high-speed rail systems across the country.
The election is Thailand's 26th since it became a democracy in 1932, ending seven centuries of absolute monarchy. It has since been governed by 17 constitutions and has experienced 18 military coups, either actual or attempted.
Recent opinion polls had suggested Puea Thai would win at least 240 seats, a threshold that was no guarantee it could govern. Most had doubted it either side would secure an outright majority, predicting back-room talks with smaller parties would prove crucial for forming a coalition.
Investors are watching. Thailand, Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and a base for automakers including General Motors Co, has struggled to execute long-term planning -- from major infrastructure to much-needed economic reforms.
The vote is also a test for Thailand's courts, which have handed down rulings that have removed two prime ministers, disbanded six parties, jailed three election commissioners and banned more than 250 politicians since the 2006 coup.
Analysts and legal experts say those precedents suggest the courts could ultimately dictate who holds political power in the months after the election, and some fear Yingluck could still be prevented from governing.
According to some reports, the Puea Thai camp had been in talks with the generals to find some way of working together should it emerge victorious. Puea Thai would be allowed to govern and the military top brass would remain in place, with early reshuffles limited to middle ranks.