Thailand was poised Saturday for the first election since last year's bloodless coup, under the close watch of the military and the looming shadow of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The generals who toppled Thaksin's twice-elected government in September 2006 say Sunday's polls will restore democracy in Thailand, where about 45.7 million people are eligible to vote.
But observers question how free and fair the elections can be as more than one-third of the country, including Thaksin's strongholds in rural northeastern provinces, is still under martial law.
"This is not a normal election. It is being held under pressure from the military," said Ukrist Pathmanand, professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"There have been no real policy discussions in this election. The only issue here is whether you love Thaksin or hate Thaksin," he said. Despite living in London in self-imposed exile since the coup, Thaksin, 58, remains the dominant figure in Thai politics.
His political allies in the People Power Party (PPP) said at their final rally in Bangkok late Friday that Thaksin would return to Thailand for the first time on February 14, after a new government is formed.
"Thaksin said if he came back before the government is formed, he would be accused of trying to make more trouble," PPP's deputy leader Chalerm Yoobamrung told the cheering crowd.
On Saturday, the leader of the PPP's main rival Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said Thaksin should return to Thailand earlier.
"If I become prime minister, I will make contact with him. Thaksin should return before February 14," he told reporters in Bangkok.
Election activities subsided Saturday as the campaign officially closes at 6:00 pm (1100 GMT), while the Election Commission said it expected to release unofficial poll results by midnight Sunday.
The PPP has successfully rallied the remnants of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was disbanded by the military, and quickly moved to the top of opinion polls going into Sunday's election.
The party draws most of its support from farmers, the majority of Thailand's 64 million population, who remember the deposed prime minister's efforts to boost the rural economy during his five-year rule.
The Democrat Party is popular among Bangkok's middle-class, who spearheaded anti-Thaksin protests that culminated in the coup, highlighting the divide over the self-made billionaire between urban dwellers and the rural masses.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thai consultant for Human Rights Watch, said the junta has done nothing over the past year to heal the social divide, and argued Sunday's election boiled down to whether voters still support the deposed leader.
"What has not changed since the coup is that we still have the division between those who support Thaksin and those who are against him," Sunai said.
"Sadly, the election is really about Thaksin. The popularity of PPP, which is the reincarnation of Thaksin's dissolved party, means that people still think Thaksin is the right choice for a leader," he said.
Analysts predict that neither party will win a clear majority of the 480 seats in parliament, forcing them to try to stitch together a coalition with a clutch of smaller parties.
During its 15 months in power, the military has tried to ensure its continued influence over government after the elections.
Sunday's polls take place following the approval, in an August referendum, of an army-backed constitution.
Critics warn the charter rolls back democratic reforms and will encourage weak coalition governments while returning real authority to the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.
All three institutions have played key roles in most of Thailand's turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the past 75 years.
The army-installed parliament also shoved through a bill late Thursday that allows a military body, with cabinet approval, to suspend basic rights and override normal government procedures anywhere in the country at any time.
"With the passage of the security bill, the military is behind a new government to exert political power," Ukrist said.
"The military will continue to influence politics. They are not going away." (AFP)