BANGKOK, Thailand -- This Buddhist-majority nation is gearing up to elect a new prime minister and restore some democracy after last year's coup, but the mood is cynical, anxious and unsatisfied because of the choices available.

Leading candidates include a tough-talking, "ultra right-wing" former Bangkok governor, People Power Party (PPP) leader Samak Sundaravej.

"I do not drink, smoke or visit brothels," Mr. Samak told an influential Buddhist abbot, Phra Phayom Kalayano, on Sunday (November 25).

Mr. Samak promises to restore many of the controversial policies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the disgraced, thrice-elected prime minister who was overthrown in a bloodless coup on September 19, 2006.

If Mr. Samak's PPP is victorious at the polls scheduled for Dec. 23, the party may cancel some of the tribunal decisions, arrest warrants and other declarations by the junta's administration against Mr. Thaksin, his relatives and colleagues.

Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, is currently residing in England, while Bangkok ponders how to convince London to extradite him.

He is one of 111 politicians banned from politics for five years by the junta.

A victorious PPP would be expected to push for lifting such restrictions -- a goal which lured many of the 111 politicians into supporting Mr. Samak by becoming "advisors" and other purported non-political players.

Mr. Samak is widely perceived as Mr. Thaksin's alleged "proxy".

But a possible post-election showdown between Mr. Samak and the junta leaders, about how to deal with Mr. Thaksin, could prolong the political and economic problems this Southeast Asian military ally of the U.S. has suffered since the coup.

"How will the military react in the event that the PPP emerges with a strong mandate to form the next government?" the Bangkok Post asked in a Nov. 18 editorial, reflecting common nervousness about the election.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin staged the coup when he was about to be fired as Army Commander-in-Chief under Mr. Thaksin.

Gen. Sonthi recently retired from that post and became deputy prime minister, and chairs the government's poll fraud eradication committee.

The other main leading candidate is Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who does not use Mr. Samak's rough-and-ready style of speaking and bare-knuckles policies to tackle Thailand's woes.

Instead, Mr. Abhisit is a foreign-educated intellectual who presents a polished and refined image, who often appears as if he is more at home with foreign investors, the media and boardrooms than the rugged rural realities of struggling farmers who form the bulk of Mr. Samak's supporters, just as they did for Mr. Thaksin.

But Mr. Abhisit's lofty, polite and quiet style is popular among well-off Thais, who hope the soft-spoken, dignified politician can reconcile a coup-minded military with those seeking full democracy.

Mr. Abhisit is widely seen as the junta's preferred candidate, especially because he was expected to maintain various investigations into alleged massive corruption linked to Mr. Thaksin, his relatives and colleagues.

Mr. Abhisit was not expected to penalize military leaders who staged the coup and orchestrated the rewriting of the constitution -- a move some fear Mr. Samak's PPP would cherish considering.

Neither Mr. Samak nor Mr. Abhisit were expected to receive enough majority at the polls to govern, without depending on smaller parties, in a squabbling and stagnating coalition.

Mr. Samak was the first to cry fowl -- and then be hit for his foul language -- when questions into his party's advisors apparently hit too close to home.

While Thais watched in disbelief during a nationwide TV broadcast on Nov. 8, Mr. Samak blasted an inquiring Thai reporter by demanding: "Who did you fornicate with last night?"

Mr. Samak uttered the deflective question in the ancient language of Pali, which is used by Thai Buddhist priests during spiritual lectures.

He referred to sexual intercourse as "sayp may toon", which some Thai media interpreted as including a "sinful" judgment.

Mr. Samak brushed off widespread criticism the next day, but later tried to soften his image by claiming that his reputation as a hard-liner -- described in Thai media as "ultra right-wing" -- has mellowed over the years.

Mr. Samak will continue Mr. Thaksin's harsh "war on drugs" which resulted in 2,500 unexplained deaths in 2003.

Thai and international human rights groups said the murders could have resulted from alleged "extrajudicial killings" by security forces.

The coup leaders had promised to investigate the killings.

Some politicians recently began examining the alleged conduct of Mr. Thaksin and police in a handful of cases.

Mr. Thaksin denied ordering police to kill drug suspects, and blamed the deaths on rivalries among drug gangs.

Gritty details like that don't cluster around Mr. Abhisit.

But Mr. Abhisit's youthful, photogenic attractiveness, healthy, do-gooder expressions, and earnest gleam have done little to lessen his seemingly glowing, elitist, top-down style.

"Am I a 'farang'?" Mr. Abhisit asked rhetorically, using the popular Thai word to describe a Caucasian foreigner.

"I have always cherished Thai culture, even though I spent 10 years of my life abroad," Mr. Abhisit said during a "Siam This Morning" TV interview on Nov. 15.

"For an urgent issue like the southern insurgency, I should have mechanisms in place to tackle the problems," Mr. Abhisit said, referring to an Islamist insurgency by minority ethnic Malay-Thais which has killed more than 2,500 people on all sides since 2004.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is