BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's upcoming election on Sunday (December 23) may be won by an "ultra right-wing" politician whose plan to defy last year's coup and bring back disgraced Thaksin Shinawatra from self-exile could bitterly divide this Buddhist-majority, U.S. ally.

Combative, tough-talking former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej, and his newly formed People Power Party (PPP), were expected to win the most votes in the parliamentary election, thanks to their support for thrice-elected, former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was toppled by a bloodless military coup on Sept. 19, 2006.

Mr. Samak's recent demand on nationwide TV, to know who a Thai reporter "fornicated" the night before, shocked many viewers who perceive him as a loud, street-hardened authoritarian happy to bare his political knuckles to achieve power.

Labeled "ultra right-wing" by Thai media, Mr. Samak, 72, said he will continue Mr. Thaksin's pro-poor policies, including cheap health care and easy credit, and also unleash a fresh "war on drugs."

Mr. Thaksin's anti-drug campaign resulted in more than 2,500 murders, which human rights groups said were "extrajudicial killings" by security forces anxious to satisfy government quotas.

Mr. Thaksin and his supporters denied those charges and said most deaths were committed by rival drug gangs settling scores and silencing squealers.

Among Thais, a vote for Mr. Samak is widely seen as a "proxy" vote for the ousted Mr. Thaksin.

The junta and its flustered supporters appeared scared that their coup against Mr. Thaksin -- and their past 15 months of investigations, tribunals, smear campaigns, arrest warrants and asset freezing tactics -- did not destroy "the old power clique."

They accused Mr. Thaksin, who is also a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, of massive corruption during his five-year reign, and of bending democracy to dominate government institutions and monopolize lucrative domestic and international contracts.

The coup leaders, along with their collaborators and supporters within Thailand's frustrated military, media, and middle and upper classes, were pinning their hopes on Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a British-educated parliamentarian who was expected to trail Mr. Samak in the polls.

Seemingly too polished, polite and poised to connect with most voters -- but a hit among wealthy foreign investors and the Thai elite -- Mr. Abhisit is perceived as too close to the junta.

"A coup is now the thing of the past, it does not make sense any more," soft-spoken Mr. Abhisit, 43, said on Tuesday (Dec. 19), in sharp contrast to the harsh condemnation the coup received from Mr. Thaksin and his ousted allies.

Whoever scores highest in the Dec. 23 election for 480 House of Representative seats will most likely need to form a coalition with smaller parties, resulting in compromises which could heal or worsen the split between Mr. Thaksin and the junta.

Some activists denounced the junta as a "dictatorial regime," but most Thais did not visibly protest the coup and instead focused on the Dec. 23 election as a way of endorsing or opposing its edicts.

The junta shredded the constitution and orchestrated the writing of a new charter -- Thailand's 17th constitution -- which was confirmed by voters despite warnings that it crippled the power of elected officials and gave the junta amnesty.

The junta also created tribunals which barred 111 politicians -- including Mr. Thaksin -- from politics for the next five years.

To dodge the ban, several of the 111 politicians installed their wives, children or brothers as candidates, mostly in Mr. Samak's PPP.

The junta and its collaborators have been mocked during the past 15 months for appearing in scandals involving real estate, conflicts of interest, and other ethical and legal violations, while not being able to convict Mr. Thaksin.

While fiddling with politics, laws and the economy, the U.S.-trained military also failed to stop Islamist separatists fighting for an ethnic Malay-Thai homeland in southern Thailand, resulting in more than 2,700 dead on all sides since 2004.

An alleged "secret military order by the junta to suppress the party" of Mr. Samak, and prevent his election victory, ultimately embarrassed the regime when Mr. Samak exposed the scam.

"Military spokesmen and leaders directly lied when they claimed the documents were forged, then blustered that they were stolen, and finally tried to claim they were only a proposal," the English-language Bangkok Post said in a Monday (Dec. 17) editorial.

Washington rebuked Bangkok for the coup, and suspended some military ties, but has conducted business as usual with this pro-capitalist Southeast Asian nation.