This opens the door for a period of intense political bargaining that could see the second-place Democrats, led by the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, form a government in coalition with all other parties.The military, and the palace backers of last year’s coup d’état, are expected to lean hard on the five smaller parties to deter them from entering an alliance with the PPP, and to press them into a shotgun marriage with the Democrats, which won just 160 seats of the parliament.However, Samak Sundaravej, the veteran politician Mr Thaksin chose to lead the PPP, said he was in negotiations with some of the smaller parties and the PPP should be able to form the government.
“It’s the victory of the people of Thailand,” Mr Samak said, after the results became clear. “When somebody stages a coup, it’s not quite so good. The decision by people today is another lesson for the military.”
A PPP government would be expected to pave the way for Mr Thaksin, a former telecommunications mogul who has been living in exile in London, to return to Thailand and reclaim about $1.9bn in assets frozen by the military-installed administration.
His return could unleash fresh turbulence in Bangkok, however, which remains strongly opposed to Mr Thaksin, and where voters gave their overwhelming support to the Democrats. “I don’t think stability is on the cards in the near future,” said Giles Ungpakorn, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist.
The election ostensibly marks a return to democracy after the military’s seizure of power in September 2006, which followed months of mass protests against Mr Thaksin.
The coup derailed an election that Mr Thaksin was poised to win, thanks to the support of rural and working class voters enamoured of his government’s policy of providing cheap health care, easy access to credit, and other support to the nation’s poor.
Since its grab for power, the military-installed government has sought to discredit Mr Thaksin and dismantle his once-formidable electoral machine.
However, the popularity of Mr Thaksin within his core constituency has proved stubbornly resistant to such moves.
Still, analysts predict plenty of manoeuvring in the weeks before the new parliament is seated in late January.“A lot can happen in 30 days,” said Pasuk Phongpaichit, a Chulalongkorn University economist. “But if you think that this is the military versus the PPP, the people’s verdict seems to be that they prefer democracy and the PPP.”