By Jason Szep
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Big rallies in Bangkok marked a final push by candidates in a national election on Sunday aimed at resolving Thailand's sometimes violent six-year political crisis but which many fear will only fuel more turbulence.
Opnion polls overwhelmingly favor the opposition Puea Thai (For Thais) party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, figurehead of a red-shirted political movement of the rural and urban poor whose protests last year sparked a bloody military crackdown.
The telegenic 44-year-old businesswoman and political novice has electrified the campaign as Thailand's first possible elected female leader, vowing to restore Thaksin's largely populist policies - from cheap credit to generous subsidies for farmers.
Many of her supporters want her to go further and bring back Thaksin himself, their red t-shirts often emblazoned with the smiling image of the former telecoms tycoon, who was removed in a 2006 military coup and lives in Dubai to evade jail for graft charges he says were politically motivated.
Recent polls suggest Puea Thai could win at least 240 seats in the 500-seat parliament.
But that is no guarantee Yingluck will govern. Most doubt either side will secure an outright majority, opening the way for both to wheel and deal with smaller parties to form a coalition.
"The question is not who will win, but by how much they will win," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"If there is a Puea Thai landslide, it would make things easier for everyone. It would shut up the Democrat Party and make it difficult for the military to intervene."
If Puea Thai fails to win an absolute majority, it might struggle to find parties to join in a coalition, he said. Many see that as a recipe for unrest.
If Yingluck's red-shirted supporters cry foul and believe the election was robbed, there is a risk they could mass again in a reprise of last year's violent protests.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 46-year-old British-born, Oxford-educated economist, is believed to have the backing of the Bhum Jai Thai Party, former Thaksin allies who could win as many as 30 seats as the third-largest party, enough to create a domino effect with smaller parties anxious to avoid being in opposition.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Abhisit said he was confident of winning 200 seats. Most analysts say he will struggle to win more than 170.
"Our assessment of the last few weeks of campaigning shows an improving public response," he said, warning of a return to political instability if Yingluck wins.
He has said this election is a chance to rid Thailind of the "poison" of Thaksin.
But despite a calm, urbane manner, Abhisit is also seen as a polarising figure who failed to mend a divide in society between the urban and rural poor on one side and the traditional elite on the other, a rift that drove Thailand close to full civil conflict last year.
After 91 people, mostly civilians, were killed, his denial that troops were responsible for a single death or injury was mocked even in the Democrat stronghold of Bangkok, where a web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on Youtube showing miliary snipers firing on civilians.
That has fanned fears that the losers of the election will not accept the results, a tangible risk in a country that has seen 18 coups since the 1930s and five years of sporadic protests.
Thailand's army chief sought this week to allay fears of another coup d'etat but warned the military would continue to suppress moves to drag the country's revered monarchy into a polarising political conflict.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha is widely accused of taking sides in the election, appearing on two television channels on June 14 to urge the public to vote for "good people" and prevent a repeat of previous election results.
The online magazine Asia Times said that the palace, military and Thaksin had held "high-level secret talks" aimed to avoiding a new confrontation and bringing about reconciliation after last year's violence.
Quoting a source familiar with the talks, he said the military had agreed to allow Puea Thai to form a new government unopposed in exchange for a vow from Thaksin not to pursue revenge or legal prosecutions of top military officials behind the 2006 coup and last year's crackdown.
Thaksin, he said, had also agreed to refrain from intervening in military affairs, including the annual reshuffle that determines the army's leadership.
Officials in both parties have not confirmed the report but Thaksin told Reuters last month that he expected he would have to negotiate with the army in order to come home.
Abhisit does not have history on his side. While Thaksin scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005, Abhisit's Democrats -- the traditional party of Thailand's royalist establishment -- have not won an election in 19 years.
Abhisit came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote many believe was a stitch-up by the military.
Abhisit has populist, big-spending policies similar to Yingluck's but has cast Sunday's vote as a referendum on Thaksin, who remains as idolised by the poor as he is reviled among Bangkok's elite.
The fear among the traditional Bangkok elite of top generals, royal advisers and old-money families who back the Democrats is that Thaksin will exact revenge against those who toppled him if his sister gains power.
Yingluck has struck a conciliatory tone, vowing not to rush into an amnesty for Thaksin and saying there will be no revenge for the coup. Her party has issued a statement that stressed amnesty for Thaksin was not a formal policy.
Not many appear convinced, including Thaksin himself, who this month told Reuters he hoped to return home by December.
(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn and Nick Macfie; Editing by Nick Macfie)