Loyalists of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won nearly half the seats in Thailand's parliamentary elections in a striking rebuke to the generals who forced the billionaire populist from power in 2006.
Sunday's vote, the first since the coup, seemed a recipe for continuing political instability. The failure of the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party to capture an absolute majority in the parliament's 480-seat lower house could let his opponents form a government despite the PPP's substantial mandate.
With more than 95 percent of the vote counted, the PPP _ established after Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded by a court order earlier this year _ had won 228 seats, according to the state Election Commission. The second-place Democrat Party took 165 seats.
Complete results were due Monday.
"I would like to call for all political parties to join us in forming a strong government," PPP leader Samak Sundaravej said at a news conference. "I will certainly be the prime minister."
He said Thaksin, who was in Hong Kong, had telephoned to offer congratulations. Thaksin did not comment publicly on the election results. Charged with a slew of corruption-related crimes in Thailand, he has lived in exile in London since his ouster.
Despite its confidence and strong showing in the polls, the PPP could face an uphill battle in trying to become the next government.
"If the PPP succeeds in forming the government, the Democrat Party is ready to be in the opposition to protect the people's interest. However, if the PPP fails to form a government, the Democrat Party is also ready to form a government," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva.
The PPP got most of its support from rural areas, where Thaksin's programs, including universal health care and development funds, won a hard-core following.
The Democrats' strongest election showing was in Bangkok, center of the 2006 movement and public demonstrations to oust Thaksin.
"There will be tension and conflicts" if the PPP comes to power, said Nakarin Mektrairat, dean of Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science.
Samak said that, if possible, the PPP would grant amnesty to Thaksin and 110 other executives of his now-disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, who were barred from office for five years.
"They didn't do anything wrong," he said.
Thailand's long-term prospects for political stability appeared poor after the vote. Samak, a 72-year-old veteran right-wing politician, has been a divisive figure for decades.
Critics say Abhisit, 43, British-born and educated at Eton and Oxford, may lack the toughness necessary to keep together a coalition of parties out to get the biggest share of power they can grab.