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Thailand braces for uncertain future

A year after violent clashes left more than 90 people dead and drove a divisive knife through Thai society, the country today goes to the polls for an election that could cause yet more turmoil and confrontation. It could also deliver Thailand its first female prime minister.

Reports suggest that up to 170,000 police officers have been put on duty to protect polling stations across the country. A total of 42 parties are contesting the contest that will decide the direction of the country on a number of crucial issues for the next four years.

If the outcome of the contest was being decided simply on the basis of who had the most arresting campaign poster and catchiest catchphrases, then former brothel tycoon Chuvit Kamolvisit might fancy his chances.

The man who once ran the country's largest prostitution network and who now leads his own party on an anti-corruption ticket, stares out of posters that read: "Politicians are like nappies – you have to change them." Mr Chuvit said this week that many of Thailand's problems were too tough and difficult to be confronted by people who "go to bed early". "A guy like me goes to sleep late," he said. "When you are dealing with crminals, you need some people who have experience of crime."

As it is, for all Mr Chuvit's enthusiasm and self-confidence, the election has come down to a clash between the incumbent prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, his Democrat party, and Puea Thai (PT), the party funded and led by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck, a businesswoman with no former direct political experience, is the party's candidate for prime minister and has been heading the campaign.

Yesterday, the 44-year-old Ms Yingluck concluded a month of electioneering with a tour through various Bangkok neighbourhoods, standing up in a bright red jeep. She waved, smiled and held her finger aloft to signify No 1, her party's number on the ballot papers. After a morning that had taken her through narrow lanes, past canals in the city's old quarter and then a tour on foot through a weekend market, the candidate stopped for lunch at a restaurant located next to a park. Among the items served to her and her group was larb, an intensely spicy mixure of minced pork and lime juice that is particularly popular in the north-east of Thailand, where her party's support is particularly strong.

Before hitting the road again, Ms Yingluck told the Independent on Sunday that if her party is successful it will have two major challenges: reuniting the country and addressing what she said was a growing gap between the rich and poor. Last year, dozens of "red shirts", many of whom support Mr Thaksin, were killed in clashes between protesters and troops in the centre of Bangkok. For many the memory of that occasion remains raw.

"I have experience with business. I think people need someone who has [that experience] and deal with the problems of the country," she said.

Yingluck and her party have proposed a populist agenda of a higher minimum wage, lower corporate taxes and free laptops for children, while still trying to lower debt levels. She said this could only be done by boosting GDP. "If you have more money you feel better and are not suffering and fighting with each other."

On the crucial issue of whether her party will grant an amnesty to her brother to allow him to return, she said it would be wrong to have such a policy for just one person. Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile in Dubai, remains a divisive personality. "The rule of law is for everyone. We have to have a process that [provides] fair treatment for everyone," she said, explaining that the party wanted to continue the work of a truth and reconciliaiton body set up by the Democrat party.

While opinion polls, which stopped one week ago, have given a clear lead to her Puea Thai party, many observers believe that neither Ms Yingluck or Mr Abhisit will be able to win a clear majority of 251 seats. As such, the decision could depend on which party is most effective at reaching out to other political groups. Ms Yingluck said Puea Thai was ready to work with any party that shared her views.

There are some, even within her party, who believe that the rival Democrat party may be best placed to secure a coalition. Previously, the army has stepped in behind the scenes to help the Democrats. Pithaya Pookaman, Puea Thai's deputy spokesman, said it was effectively all or nothing. "We have to try and win a majority," he said.