BANGKOK, Thailand -- Voters gave a strong mandate to elect Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, on Sunday (July 3) so she can reverse a devastating 2006 coup by the U.S.-trained military and bring her toppled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, home from self-exile.

To protect herself against a possible putsch, Mrs. Yingluck, as prime minister, may allow the generals who staged the coup to keep their current job promotions and continue to enjoy a free hand in demanding expensive weapons procurement contracts.

But hatred, distrust and betrayal have ravaged Thai society on all sides since the coup, making any deals difficult to believe or rely upon.

The military had supported Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who took office in December 2008.

Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit, 46, conceded defeat in a brief speech on Sunday night after the polls closed and congratulated Mrs. Yingluck, 44, who is Mr. Thaksin's youngest sister.

She enjoyed a strong lead in early official counting and exit polls, which indicated her Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party may secure a majority of more than 251 of the 500 lower house of Parliament seats up for grabs.

If need be, Mrs. Yingluck said she will invite the Chart Thai Pattana and other parties to form a coalition.

"Thaksin called me to congratulate me and encourage me," a delighted Mrs. Yingluck told reporters at her party's Bangkok headquarters where supporters cheered and screeched with joy.

Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, said his wealthy sister was his "clone" and their Pheu Thai party slogan is: "Thaksin Thinks. Pheu Thai Acts."

All eyes are now on Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who played a role in 2006 coup, and his colleagues.

Mr. Abhisit hoped to stay atop his coalition government with the help of Gen. Prayuth and other anti-Thaksin generals, along with businessmen, royalists, and the urban middle class who are denounced as "elites" by the country's agricultural and industrial poor Red Shirt dissidents who supported Mr. Thaksin and his sister.

Soft-spoken Mr. Abhisit's coalition was formed under pressure by the military and royalists, according to Thai analysts, resulting in smaller parties agreeing to let him become prime minister even though Mr. Abhisit never won a nationwide majority.

During the past few weeks, an acrimonious election campaign was filled with hateful sloganeering.

Mr. Abhisit used his prime ministerial podium to denounce Mr. Thaksin as a "terrorist" and warn that many of Mrs. Yingluck's Red Shirt candidates and supporters "torched our nation" last year in anarchistic arson attacks.

The Red Shirts' nine-week insurrection in April and May 2010 turned Bangkok's wealthiest intersection into a sprawling bamboo-spiked fortress, isolating five-star hotels, shopping malls and condominiums, but ended in bloodshed and flames.

Mrs. Yingluck's supporters blamed Mr. Abhisit for ordering the military to unleash snipers, armored personnel carriers and other weapons against thousands of anti-coup Red Shirt demonstrators during street clashes, which resulted in 91 deaths -- most of them civilians.

Mr. Thaksin compared Mr. Abhisit to Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi "for ordering his troops to use live ammunition and deploying both snipers and tanks against protesters. Abhisit also did all that," Mr. Thaksin said in a German magazine interview.

Mr. Abhisit denied all such accusations.

Away from the finger-pointing, all sides agree that this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation needs "reconciliation" so the military will not stage yet another putsch, after their 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.

But Sunday's election was mostly about Mr. Thaksin's fate.

"I like both Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Abhisit," said a hotel manager who declined to reveal her final choice.

"Mr. Thaksin was very good for the economy. Now with him gone, we are having high prices and other problems.

"Mr. Abhisit was good with the foreign community and investors because, I think, international people accepted him more."

All parties offered similar, populist, tax-funded policies including cheap health care, easy loans, commodity price supports, educational assistance, huge infrastructure projects and other spending.

After the 2006 coup, Mr. Thaksin fled a two-year jail sentence for allowing his ex-wife to purchase real estate in Bangkok at a low price while he was prime minister.

In a separate stock market corruption case, the government seized $1.2 billion of Mr. Thaksin's assets, which he hopes his sister can refund because, he said, "the government stole my money."

Mrs. Yingluck earlier indicated she would give "amnesty" to Mr. Thaksin and several other people who were charged or convicted during the past five years, but later muffled that possibility after Mr. Abhisit blasted the idea as a serious violation of Thai law.

A confrontation over whether or not to exonerate Mr. Thaksin, and refund his cash, could spark fresh violence if Mrs. Yingluck and the Reds push their amnesty plan, Thai analysts and politicians warned.

A more immediate concern among the Pheu Thai party and their Red Shirt allies is that the powerful Election Commission could soon disqualify some of Mrs. Yingluck's candidates because of alleged campaign or election violations, and reduce their numbers in Parliament.

The Election Commission cancelled more 1.2 million votes after the polling booths closed Sunday for being "incorrect," the office announced on its website ( without revealing which parties the votes were for.

Mrs. Yingluck's supporters fear her seats may intentionally be whittled down by the Election Commission to force her to ask smaller parties to support her -- but those parties would then be pressured by the military and royalists to back away, causing her to lose her chance to become prime minister.

"The Thai Election Commission has until August 2, 2011 to confirm the election result," the British Embassy said in a website warning to its citizens. (

"There remains a risk that political developments may lead to violence," it said.

"There is a high threat of terrorism in Thailand. Bomb and grenade attacks have been indiscriminate, including in places visited by expatriates and foreign travelers," the embassy said.

"Now it's vote rigging time!" the Red Shirts' Facebook page said on Sunday (July 3), warning of murky conspiracies against Mrs. Yingluck and her candidates.

"We know the will of the people. The next results will not be the will of people but the will of the ammart," the Reds said, using a Thai word to describe the ruling elite.

"Exit polls count [for] nothing! The official count is what matters and that's where the result is being rigged right now. Wait for the nasty surprise."

Exit polls also showed a victory for Chuwit Kamolvisit, a controversial former massage parlor tycoon who said the U.S. Embassy rejected his visa application -- barring him from joining a Thai government trip to visit Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration officials -- in 2005 because of his earlier links to the sex industry.

"They don't give any reason, but maybe it was because of the massage parlors I owned before I became a politician," Parliament Member Chuwit Kamolvisit said in an interview in 2005.

"I still have two kids with my ex-wife" living in America, he said at the time.

To enter politics he sold his Copacabana, Victoria's Secret, Honolulu, Hi Class, Emmanuel and other massage parlors which he said were legal, licensed, and employed about 600 females at a time, plus a decade-long turn-over of about 20,000 female masseuses.

As a politician, Mr. Chuwit attracted and amused voters on all sides by his comedy-inspired antics, theatrical facial gestures, and claims to be against corruption.

In a 2004 interview, he boasted that he possessed a list of corrupt police who he had paid a total of $5 million during the 10 years when he had his massage parlors to "make my business smooth."

Mr. Chuwit described the incriminating list as his "insurance" against harassment.

If elected, Mr. Chuwit vowed to remain in the opposition so he could freely criticize whoever was in power.


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. His web page is Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)