By Martin Petty
BANGKOK (Reuters) - After Thailand's military removed her brother in a bloodless coup on a hot September night five years ago, the front-runner in next month's closely fought election has good reason to fear the generals will go after her.
Recent rumblings from the army suggest she should be concerned.
As Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, surges ahead in the race to become Thailand's next prime minister after elections next month, the army has cast aside its neutrality, analysts say, and looks intent on derailing her. How far they will go is unclear.
If she prevails over Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's ruling Democrat Party and forms a government, a coup is one option, though an unlikely one due to the risk of drawing tens of thousands of Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters into the streets in a reprise of last year's bloody clashes with troops.
Most analysts and diplomats suggest she may cut a deal with the army to preserve her government and to prevent a new round of street riots.
But in the days leading up to the July 3 election, the army is doing what it can to stop her momentum and foil her plans for a general amnesty that would clear the way for Thaksin to return from self-exile in Dubai, where he lives to avoid prison following a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, instrumental in the coup that toppled Thaksin and offensives to crush anti-government red-shirt street insurrections in 2009 and 2010, made a stern-faced address on two army-owned television channels last week, stressing the military would not meddle in the election.
But his message had the opposite effect.
Prayuth warned of threats against Thailand's monarchy and urged the public to vote for "good people" and to avoid a repeat of previous polls, a not-so-subtle reference to a decade of elections won by Thaksin allies.
"If you allow the election results to be the same as before, you will not get anything new and you will not see any improvement," Prayuth said.
By wading into the political fray, the army risks inflaming a sometimes-violent, five-year political crisis in which the rural and urban poor red shirts are pitted against a traditional elite of generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and old-money families who back the ruling Democrats.
Prayuth's comments were widely seen as a move to discredit Yingluck's Puea Thai Party and stem its momentum following opinion polls that show it is likely to win the most votes in the election.
"For an army chief to plead with the voters to cast their ballots for 'good' parties and 'good' candidates is very inappropriate and, as such, he can be seen as taking sides in the upcoming election," Veera Prateepchaikul, a former editor of The Bangkok Post, wrote in the daily on Monday.
A HISTORY OF COUPS
The army has been a major force in politics since Thailand became a democracy in 1932, staging 18 coups -- some successful, some not -- and several discreet interventions in forming coalition governments, almost all with the tacit backing of Thailand's royalist establishment.
Since the last coup, the military's budget has nearly doubled and it has stood firm behind Abhisit, aiding his rise to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote and battling with pro-Thaksin red shirt demonstrators. The last face-off in April and May last year killed 91 people and wounded at least 1,800.
"The general image of the military has not exactly complemented Thailand's democratic process," said Worajet Phakhirat, a law professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Making these comments so close to the election can have a negative reaction."
Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit, said the stakes are high for the military, which faces a possible purge if Yingluck becomes premier and remains influenced by Thaksin, who may seek a military reshuffle in revenge for his ouster.
"A coup is the worst-case scenario but that can't be ruled out if Thaksin regains power," he said. "The military has learned from the past and knows Thaksin will want his revenge."
Since Yingluck's May 16 nomination, the 43-year-old businesswoman has championed Thaksin's populist legacy and energised his urban and rural working class supporters, who elected his now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party twice in landslides in 2001 and 2005.
Yingluck says she will pursue reconciliation if she becomes prime minister, vowing not to interfere with the armed forces.
But not everyone is convinced. Mistrust of Thaksin runs deep and her assurances are unlikely to be enough.
TALK OF A DEAL WITH THE ARMY
Some expect the generals to intervene discreetly to prevent Puea Thai from forming a government if, as many expect, it wins the most seats in parliament but falls short of an outright majority and must form a coalition to govern.
That's where the army could wield its influence by trying to persuade smaller parties to shun Puea Thai and side with Abhisit's Democrats.
That may not work. If Puea Thai wins by a landslide, or wins comfortably, it could govern with just one medium-sized party in a coalition.
A tougher step, such as a coup, is difficult. The red shirts are far stronger and more organised than in 2006 when the generals removed Thaksin. If tanks rumbled into Bangkok, thousands would likely flood the city's streets in protest.
"Another coup is an option Prayuth doesn't want to take because more red shirts than ever before would come to shut down Bangkok," said an analyst with close knowledge of the military who requested anonymity.
"But a coup becomes likely if Prayuth gets word of a planned purge by a Puea Thai government. There might be no other option."
Sources close to Puea Thai and the military say that could be averted, and that Thaksin and the generals are discussing an arrangement under which Puea Thai could govern in return for an assurance the top brass would not be purged.
Abhisit told Reuters last week he was aware the military had been approached by Puea Thai with a view to a deal.
Thaksin declined to comment on any such arrangement, but conceded in an interview with Reuters in Dubai last Wednesday that his return to Thailand hinged on talks with the military.
Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane's, said a deal was almost inevitable if Puea Thai won handsomely.
But in return, he said, Puea Thai would have to scrap its plans for an amnesty to allow Thaksin's return, appoint a defense minister sensitive to the army leadership and guarantee the party would not get involved in the military's affairs.
(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Jason Szep and John Chalmers)