Noisy celebrations erupted in the centre of Bangkok yesterday as Yingluck Shinawatra defied her critics and stormed to a comprehensive electoral victory, putting her on track to make history as Thailand's first woman prime minister.
At the offices of the Puea Thai (PT) party, hundreds of red-shirted supporters cheered, danced and chanted her name as the news slowly sank in that the party controlled and funded by her divisive brother – former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – had secured nothing short of a landslide.
"Sisters and brothers, please do not just treat the voting results today as the Puea Thai party's victory. It is your kindness to allow me and the Puea Thai party to serve your interests," the 44-year-old businesswoman told a televised press conference, having received a telephone call of congratulation from her brother, who lives in exile in Dubai.
"There is a lot more hard work to do in future for the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers, the people of Thailand. There are many things to accomplish to make reconciliation possible, paving the way for a solid foundation for a flourishing nation."
While a number of observers believed PT would emerge as the party with the highest number of votes, many questioned whether they would be able to secure a simple majority in the parliament. There were also questions as to whether the army and establishment would try to scupper any victory. As it was, with more than 98 per cent of the vote counted, PT had 264 of a total of 500 parliamentary seats, compared with 160 for the ruling Democrat party.
Ms Yingluck said PT had already reached an agreement with one smaller party, Chart Thai Pattana, about joining a coalition, and was in negotiations with others.
Little more than four hours after voting finished at 3pm, incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded defeat, a move that ensured there will be no need for weeks of negotiations between various parties before a new government can be called. "I will give the chance to Yingluck, the first woman to form a government. I want to see unity and reconciliation," said the British-educated Mr Abhisit.
Yesterday's result represents a huge turnaround for the fortunes of Mr Thaksin, who was ousted from office in 2006 in a military coup and subsequently convicted in absentia over conflict of interest issues.
He was sentenced to two years in jail and has remained overseas to avoid going to prison, using his telecommunications fortune to continue running his political operation from overseas. It was his decision, little more than a month ago, to appoint his younger sister, a graduate of Kentucky State University in the US, as the party's prime ministerial candidate.
While Ms Yingluck had no direct political experience, she threw herself into the campaign and spoke confidently of her business experience, working for her brother's portfolio of businesses. She has said improving the country's economy and bridging the gap between the country's rich and poor will be priorities. The party campaigned with a clutch of populist policies including lower taxes and a higher national minimum wage.
It is just 15 months since the centre of Bangkok was rocked by bloody clashes between government forces and anti-government protesters, many of them supporters of Mr Thaksin. More than 90 people were killed, almost all of them civilians, and hundreds more were wounded. Among those hurt was Samlan Permpon, who said he was shot in the leg by soldiers on 19 May last year as the troops cleared protesters from a shopping district in the city centre.
Last night, Mr Samlan was among the supporters outside the PT headquarters, celebrating Ms Yingluck's victory. "Since then I have been unable to sleep and since that day I have felt I should do whatever we can to defeat Abhisit," said Mr Samlan, a rubbish collector from the north-east of the country where PT has its strongest support. "If they don't allow PT to form the government we will fight 24 hours a day."
Indeed, even now some of Ms Yingluck's most senior advisers remain cautious and fear her victory could be challenged, if not immediately, then in the weeks ahead. Yesterday's win represented the fourth electoral victory in six years for Mr Thaksin or his allies but on the three previous occasions the wins were subsequently overturned.
His 2005 re-election was rendered meaningless just a year later by a military coup and two prime ministers allied to him were forced from office amid allegations of unconstitutional behaviour. "This is a good mandate," said Sean Boonpracong, an adviser to the red shirts. "Nevertheless, we have to see what happens."
Exiled tycoon to return?
* The most contentious issue in the weeks ahead for Thai politics will be whether former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is granted an amnesty and allowed to return home from self-imposed exile. While he remains hugely popular among large numbers of the rural and urban poor, many dislike him.
The day before the Puea Thai party's victory, Ms Yingluck said they did not support any such plan for just one person. "The rule of law is for everyone. We have to have a process that [provides] fair treatment for everyone," she said.
Senior figures within the party have been playing down the prospect of his return, aware of the controversy it could create. Surat Horachaikul, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, said such a move would quickly bring challenges from the opposition parties.
Indeed, Boomyod Sooktinthai, a Democrat MP and spokesman, asked about his party's new priorities in opposition, said: "It all depends on the amnesty. It depends if there is an amnesty for Thaksin. The problem is [PT] are always changing what they say ... Thaksin has created problems for the country."
Even some of Mr Thaksin's supporters believe he should stay where is his for now. "The best thing is for him to remain in exile and have influence from abroad," said Akkaradech Pharmornsirtrakul, who yesterday afternoon voted for PT at a polling station located inside a temple at Rangsit, on the northern fringes of Bangkok. "I hope that for two years he does not return."
Ahead of the election, Mr Thaksin said he would only return when he was in a position to help the country. Yesterday, speaking from Dubai, he told Reuters: "When I decide to return, it should help contribute to the process of reconciliation, not making myself part of its problem. I should be a solution, not a problem."