By Ambika Ahuja and Jason Szep
UDON THANI, Thailand (Reuters) - With her telegenic good looks and powerful political support, Yingluck Shinawatra is shaking up Thailand's first parliamentary election since a wave of political violence last year.
The 43-year-old businesswoman, sister of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has vaulted swiftly into front runner status in the July 3 vote, tapping support in the rural north and northeast heartland where her brother remains a populist hero five years after he was toppled in a coup.
After a week of campaigning, she has a surprised skeptics and demonstrated she has Thaksin's star power as she seeks to become Thailand's first female elected leader.
A political neophyte, she is seen widely as a stand-in for her brother, a 60-year-old ethnic Chinese telecommunications tycoon who transformed Thai politics with landslide election wins before he was felled by corruption charges he says were politically motivated.
Yingluck has promised to revive Thaksin's populist policies and raise living standards, vowing to pursue reconciliation to end Thailand's bloody five-year political crisis without seeking vengeance for her brother's overthrow.
Asked by Reuters for details, she said: "The first priority is to help people with rising costs of living. Next, we will have to see how to bring about reconciliation ... how we could bring unity to the country. "We have to move past this conflict before we can stand with stability," she said, her sentence interrupted by a screaming supporter.
"The prime minister is so beautiful," the supporter said of Yingluck.
It is still early days but poll numbers are moving in her favor. A survey by Suan Dusit University on Sunday showed 41 percent of those polled backed Yingluck's Puea Thai party, with the ruling Democrats of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at nearly 37 percent.
A Bangkok Poll on Tuesday showed 25.8 percent of the capital backed Puea Thai, with only 14.7 percent for the Democrats in their traditional stronghold. Half of those polled were undecided.
"This has worked out better than expected. We were expecting a proxy for Thaksin, but the fact that she is bringing something of her own is a major bonus," said Michael Montesano of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"This is a shrewd move. She has Thaksin's name, she represents him, she appeals to women and it's generated excitement. If they play this right, it could draw in voters from the middle ground."
Thaksin has referred to her as his "clone," but while some lament her only qualification to lead the country is her name, she is invigorating supporters.
At her first appearance in the Thaksin stronghold of the northeast since her nomination on May 16, she was feted by a crowd of thousands, enjoying a rock star reception. Her supporters idolize Thaksin as the first leader to pay attention to the millions living beyond Bangkok's bright lights. They are putting their hopes on her to bring him back.
As cameras flashed, cheering crowds raised index fingers symbolizing the number one, her party's ballot number, as Yingluck rode in a "tuk-tuk" motorcycle taxi in Udon Thani on Wednesday, smiling as supporters greeted her with red roses.
"Here's our first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, pick number one, choose Yingluck," a canvasser shouted on a loudspeaker as she met traders at a market, her voiced drowned out by crowds chanting "number one." Later, she addressed a rally of tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the city, many wearing red shirts emblazoned with Thaksin's smiling face -- an image that raises alarm bells for the government, military and royalist elite, who see Thaksin as a terrorist and a crony capitalist.
"I might not have political experience, but politics is in my blood," Yingluck told the crowd. "Do you still miss Thaksin's policies?" she asked as her supporters roared "yes."
"We'll bring them back," she responded.
Abhisit's Democrat Party has dismissed Yingluck as a political novice serving as a nominee to allow Thaksin to wrestle back power and return from exile, where he lives to avoid a two-year jail term for graft.
The urbane, Oxford-educated Abhisit has gone on the defensive and has said Puea Thai's call for an amnesty for those guilty of politically related offences is purely for Thaksin's benefit and could trigger a repeat of the protests and violence that killed 91 people in April and May last year.
But Yingluck's supporters believe the U.S.-educated president of property firm SC Asset Corporation could be the one to heal an intractable political malaise characterised by deadly street violence, military crackdowns and governments forced from office.
"She is pretty, smart and gentle and a woman like her can bring about reconciliation," said Kamsai Thongbai, a 56-year-old rice farmer who traveled to Udon Thani's airport to be among the first to greet Yingluck.
"She can show Thaksin's opponents that we don't want a fight or revenge. We just want the winner to govern. She is a capable businesswoman, let her help."
(Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)