BANGKOK // Allies of Thailand's fugitive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra stormed to victory in elections today, in a remarkable comeback after years of turmoil sparked by his overthrow in a military coup.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded defeat and congratulated a victorious opposition led by Thaksin's youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is now due to become Thailand first female prime minister.
With 92 percent of votes counted, Puea Thai had won 260 seats out of 500, well ahead of the Democrats with 163, according to the Election Commission.
"The outcome is clear: Puea Thai has won the election and the Democrats are defeated," Mr Abhisit told supporters at the party's Bangkok headquarters.
The poll was the first major electoral test for the elite-backed government since mass demonstrations by Mr Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters last year paralysed Bangkok and unleashed the worst political violence in decades.
Earlier a smiling Ms Yingluck addressed jubilant supports at the Puea Thai Party's headquarters in the Thai capital, saying: "Thaksin has called to congratulate me and said there was a tough job ahead.
Ms Yingluck, 44, a businesswoman and political novice whom Thaksin has described as his "clone", said: "Thank you to the people who came out to vote."
Amid fears that an opposition victory could unleash more deadly protests or even another army takeover, Mr Thaksin called on all sides to respect the outcome of the ballot.
"All parties must respect the people's decision otherwise our country cannot achieve peace," Mr Thaksin, a former billionaire telecoms tycoon, told Thai television by telephone from his base in Dubai.
"I think people want to see reconciliation. They want to move forward," he said. "We will not seek revenge."
Mr Thaksin, toppled by the military in 2006 and now living in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, nevertheless dominated the election in Thailand, where he remains a hugely divisive figure.
He is adored by rural voters for his populist policies while in power such as cheap healthcare and microcredit schemes, but hated by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to the revered monarchy.
The election is seen as a major test of the kingdom's ability to emerge from its long political crisis, which has seen years of street protests by Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters and the rival "Yellow Shirt" royalists.
More than 170,000 police were deployed to secure the vote, but it appeared to proceed peacefully. Long queues were seen at polling stations.
Political observers had said that a close result could have fuelled a fresh round of street protests or military intervention, but a clear win by the opposition will make it harder for the generals to justify seizing power.
The Puea Thai party has proposed an amnesty for convicted politicians, a move apparently aimed at bringing Mr Thaksin home, where he faces terrorism charges in connection with the protests in April-May 2010.
More than 90 people, mostly civilians, died in a series of street clashes between mostly unarmed red-clad protesters loyal to Mr Thaksin and government soldiers firing live ammunition in the streets of the capital.
Many doubt the Bangkok-based establishment in government, military and palace circles would allow Mr Thaksin, the one-time owner of Manchester City football club, to come back as a free man.
If Mr Thaksin tries to return the army may "strike back", said the Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"If he sets foot in Thailand the military could accuse him of coming back and trying to create disunity among Thais."
Asked about his plans, Mr Thaksin said today he hoped to see his daughter marry in Thailand in December: "I don't have to return home soon. I can stay here, but I just really want to attend my daughter's wedding. I don't want to cause trouble by returning home."
The military is a constant wildcard in a nation that has seen almost as many coups as elections. The judiciary also has a record of intervening in politics.
Mr Thaksin or his allies have won the most seats in the past four elections, but the courts reversed the results of the last two polls.
Mr Abhisit, who wasborn in Britain, took office in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling threw out the previous administration, and he was accused by his foes of being an unelected puppet of the military and the establishment.