Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister deposed in a military coup last year, plans to return home in the next few months and is willing to "advise" the political party made up of his supporters that won Sunday's general election.
But Mr Thaksin, who has been in self-imposed exile since the coup, claims to have no interest in resuming his political career. "I really want to go back [to Thailand] as a normal citizen," he told a press conference in Hong Kong yesterday. "Enough is enough for politics."
The People's Power Party, formed after Mr Thaksin's own party was disbanded in the wake of the military takeover, won 233 of the 480 seats in the lower house of parliament and claims to have sufficient support from smaller parties to form a coalition government.
The result was effectively a snub to the generals who seized power in September 2006, while Mr Thaksin was overseas, and a signal of support for the former prime minister, who wooed the rural poor by giving them free health care and village development funds. Rumours swirled that the military, which has led 18 coups in the past 75 years, would carry out a new coup if faced with the prospect of a Thaksin comeback. But the army's commander promised to respect the election results.
"We have nothing to worry about and will accept it," said the Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit. "We just have to let politicians do their job."
The main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, which is supported by the army and by Thailand's educated middle classes, captured 165 seats. But the outcome could change as legal challenges are mounted. Three PPP candidates were disqualified yesterday by the Election Commission, which found evidence of cash being handed out in exchange for votes.
ANFREL, an Asian election watchdog, said yesterday that pre-election vote-buying was "pervasive". It also said that voters in some areas were coerced by the military.
Mr Thaksin said he planned to "explore options" for returning to Thailand, possibly as early as mid-February, and in April at the latest. He would be prepared to act as political adviser to the PPP if asked, he said, adding: "I will give my ideas free of charge."
If he does return, he will face criminal charges relating to an allegedly corrupt land deal. His wife, Pojarmarn, also faces charges brought by military investigators. Mr Thaksin, who has spent much of his exile in London and took time out to buy Manchester City football club, has pledged to clear his name.
The PPP claims to be confident of gathering enough support from minor parties to control 280 to 300 seats in parliament. Releasing the full results yesterday, the Thailand Election Commission said that a record 74.45 per cent of the 45 million eligible voters cast ballots. The third-ranked Chart Thai gained 37 seats.
But the leader of the PPP's chief rival, Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, which won a solid victory in Bangkok, warned that Mr Thaksin should not interfere in the country's political or judicial system. "In that case, the country might face rifts and conflicts, while nobody wants another military coup," he said.
Despite the prospect of the political turmoil of the past two years continuing, the Thai stock market rose 3 per cent, albeit in very thin trade, when it reopened yesterday. Investors believed the election would improve political stability and economic growth, likely to fall from 5.1 per cent in 2006 towards 4 per cent this year, the lowest in six years.