Thailand's top political parties courted possible coalition government partners Monday, a day after allies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came out on top in the first election since a 2006 military coup.
The coup drove Thaksin from power and into exile.
Still, his backers in the People's Power Party or PPP won nearly half the seats in the parliament's 480-member lower house _ a powerful message that Thaksin's mostly rural supporters would be happy to see him return, despite his alleged corruption and abuse of power.
Less happy about his return would be those who deposed him: the military, Bangkok's educated middle class and the country's elite, including elements associated with the country's monarchy.
All had felt threatened by Thaksin's accumulation of power, attained through an unprecedented absolute majority in the country's parliament.
Under the interim military-installed government that succeeded Thaksin, his foes changed the constitution to limit big parties' influence and sought to demonize him as a corrupt destroyer of democracy.
His return could undo their efforts and put their own positions in jeopardy.
Rumors had swirled that the military might carry out a new coup if faced with the prospect of a Thaksin comeback _ but the army commander has promised to abide by the election results.
Those results showed that Thaksin's foes had failed to win over Thaksin's followers in the sprawling, rural north and northeast. They remain loyal due to Thaksin's populist programs like universal health care and village development funds, when he held office in 2001-06.
"This is the people's decision. The military has to accept that people disagree with the coup," said Prinya Thaewanaraemitkul, who teaches law at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
Thaksin, who has stayed abroad since the bloodless coup, is legally barred from office, the courts dissolved his Thai Rak Thai Party, and he has been charged with a slew of corruption-related crimes.
But by capturing 233 House seats, according to the latest Election Commission figures, the pro-Thaksin PPP _ led by former Thai Rak Thai members _ is in the best position to form a new governing coalition.
His proxy PPP faces a sharp challenge from the Democrat Party, which took second place in the elections with just 165 seats, but has the political establishment's confidence.
PPP Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee said his party had won the agreement of enough other smaller parties to form a majority coalition.
There would be "no problem in forming a government" with 280 to 300 seats, Surapong said at a news conference. Parliament's lower house is supposed to convene within a month of the election.
Surapong said he will reveal his would-be partners' names only after Jan. 3, when the Election Commission is expected to certify the voting results.
His statement drew skepticism from Democrat Party Secretary-General Suthep Thueksuban, who said the PPP's claim would be credible only if all the involved party leaders announce it publicly and jointly.
Even if the PPP has concluded a deal, it could fall apart if enough of the party's candidates are disqualified for offenses like vote-buying.
Building a working coalition is only the first challenge to restoring Thailand's stability after two years of polarizing politics, which began with Bangkok street demonstrations demanding Thaksin step down _ and continued after the coup failed to reconcile Thaksin's urban opponents and rural supporters.
Coalition governments have been unstable in Thailand, as sometimes ill-matched political allies vie for power and influence.
The Democrats, under party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva, are generally regarded as the "cleanest" of the seven parties that won seats. In forming a coalition, they would have to align themselves with parties with less savory reputations.
The most crucial of these is the third-place Chart Thai Party with 37 seats. Its leader, ex-Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa, is a wily veteran politico known for driving a hard bargain.
The prospects for a PPP-led government are also shaky.
Party leader Samak Sundaravej, a sharp-tongued right-winger who has served in several Cabinets and as Bangkok governor, has been a divisive figure for decades.
"Within the PPP itself, there are camps and factions. It's not going to be easy to form a strong and stable government led by Samak," said the university teacher, Prinya.
The nightmare scenario for Thaksin's opponents would be his return to Thailand and restoration to a position of open influence. Thaksin, who has repeatedly said he has retired from politics, still controls a vast fortune earned in telecommunications.
Thaksin's PPP allies announced last week that he would return to Bangkok early next year, after a new government is installed. Thaksin has not yet commented publicly on the election results.
Samak said Sunday that the PPP would, if possible, grant amnesty to Thaksin and 110 other executives from his disbanded party. They have been barred from office for five years.