Thailand's two biggest political parties exhorted their supporters in rain-soaked rallies Friday ahead of elections that are the latest battle in a five-year struggle between supporters of an ousted prime minister and his rivals.
The top contenders are Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and opposition leader Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin fled overseas to escape a jail sentence for corruption and is not a candidate. But many voters will be judging him and his populist policies when they cast their ballots Sunday.
Since the coup, political battles have mostly been fought in the streets, most notably in protests by Thaksin's supporters last year that degenerated into violence in which 91 people were killed and about 1,800 injured.
The election campaign, however, has been vigorous but generally peaceful.
The two front-runners held major rallies in the Thai capital Friday evening, the last chance to catch a nighttime crowd before a "cooling-off" period Saturday eventing through election day, during which campaigning is banned, including the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to solicit votes.
"Our country is ready to move forward," Abhisit declared. "Those who love Thailand, who do not want to see any divides or violence" should vote for his Democrats. He claimed a government led by Pheu Thai would only stir up social conflict because it would likely grant Thaksin amnesty and return his seized assets, triggering outrage akin to that which brought him down.
Yingluck said in her speech that a Pheu Thai-led government would lead the nation to economic prosperity again, trading on the perception that brother and his business acumen had brought good times to the country.
Opinion polls were halted last week as absentee voting started but have showed Yingluck's Pheu Thai party with a healthy lead, though not quite a majority. The party is expected to win in the rural north and northeast, while the Democrats have a lock on the south, their traditional stronghold.
Yingluck, a 44-year-old political neophyte, stresses her connection with Thaksin, telling campaign rallies, "If you love my brother, will you give his youngest sister a chance?" She has called for an amnesty for convicted politicians that many believe could lead to her brother's return.
The military ousted Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, after he was accused of corruption and disrespecting the monarchy. That sparked a sometimes violent struggle between his supporters who seek to restore his political legacy, and opponents who contend he was a corrupt and dangerous autocrat.
Thaksin's backers claim he was forced out because the Thai establishment _ big business, the military and circles around the royal palace _ was jealous of his popularity and fearful of losing power and influence.
Thaksin's vast fortune helped build Thailand's most sophisticated political machine, and he cemented his support with populist policies that appealed to the rural majority and urban poor.
Abhisit's Democrats came to power in December 2008 by luring away lawmakers whose parties had been in a pro-Thaksin coalition government. Thaksin's supporters charge that Abhisit cobbled together his ruling majority only with the help of pressure from the army.
"It's a vote for or against Pheu Thai and directly that means for or against Thaksin, what he has done for and against Thailand," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "But most importantly, this election is a referendum on what has happened to Thailand since the military coup _ all this manipulation, coercion, suppression from above, from the side, whether people agree or disagree."
Many people fear political strife will continue regardless of the election outcome.
Should Thaksin's supporters feel they are cheated out of forming a government, they could well return to the streets. And there is wariness that the army _ whose leadership is strongly anti-Thaksin _ could stage another coup if it is unwilling to accept another pro-Thaksin government.
"Personally, I think the unrest will persist because the old powers will not give up their authority so easily," 41-year-old food vendor Sayumpawn Salapanya said. "There will be violence on the streets and protesters surrounding Government House again."