BANGKOK — The sister of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led Thailand's main opposition party to a landslide victory in elections Sunday, heralding an extraordinary political turnaround five tumultuous years after her fugitive billionaire brother was toppled in an army coup.
The vote paves the way for 44-year-old Yingluck Shinawatra, who has never held office, to become this Southeast Asian kingdom's first female prime minister.
A large mandate to govern could help the new government navigate a way out of out of the crisis that has plagued Thailand since Thaksin's 2006 overthrow. But the question remains whether the nation's elite power brokers, including the monarchy and the army, would accept the result.
Thaksin was barred from politics years ago after a graft conviction, and the U.S.-educated Yingluck, who he calls "my clone," is widely considered her proxy.
The incumbent premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, conceded defeat Sunday night and said he was ready to become the opposition.
With 94 percent of the vote counted, preliminary results from the Election Commission indicated Yingluck's Pheu Thai party had a strong lead with 261 of 500 parliament seats, well over the majority needed to form a government. Abhisit's Democrats had 162 seats.
Speaking to a throng of cheering supporters at her party headquarters in Bangkok, Yingluck declined to declare victory until final results are released. But she said: "I don't want to say that Pheu Thai wins today. It's a victory of the people."
In an interview broadcast on the Thai PBS television station, Thaksin called the preliminary outcome "a step forward."
"People are tired of a standstill," he said from the desert emirate of Dubai, where he lives in exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for graft he says is politically motivated. "They want to see change in a peaceful manner."
Thaksin said he did not feel vengeful and was "ready to forgive all."
After the army toppled Thaksin, controversial court rulings removed two of the pro-Thaksin premiers who followed, one of whom won a 2007 vote intended to restore democracy. That chain of events paved the way for army-backed Abhisit to assume power – ultimately sparking the massive anti-government protests last year which brought Bangkok to its knees, leaving 90 people dead, 1,800 wounded and the glittering city's skyline engulfed in flames.
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated his vow last week to stay neutral in the vote, dismissing rumors the military would stage another coup.
"The future depends on whether the traditional elite will be willing to accept the voice of the people," Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told The Associated Press.
The more Yingluck's party wins by, he said, "the more stable her government will be, the more difficult it will be for the elite to do anything against it."
The photogenic Yingluck has long been seen as the front-runner in the vote. Her popularity is almost entirely due to fact that she is the proxy of Thaksin.
His ascent to power in 2001 changed Thailand forever, touching off a societal schism between the country's haves and long-silent have-nots. The marginalized rural poor hail his populism, while the elite establishment sees him as a corrupt, autocratic threat to the status quo and even to the revered constitutional monarchy.
That schism has played out through pro- and anti-Thaksin street protests since the 2006 coup. The vote, many believe, is largely about the divisive legacy he left behind.
For a nation of 66 million people known to tourists as "the Land of Smiles," much is at stake.
Last year's demonstrations marked some of the nation's worst violence in two decades and left Thailand's reputation for stability in tatters. Holding the ballot was one of the protesters demands, though they wanted it held last year.
Oxford-educated Abhisit has used his campaign to blame the opposition and its supporters for burning Bangkok last year, saying a vote for Yingluck would be a vote for chaos. He has also declared the poll "the best opportunity to remove the poison of Thaksin from Thailand."
Abhisit and his allies believe Yingluck is plotting Thaksin's return through a proposed amnesty that would apply for political crimes committed since the coup. Yingluck says it is aimed at reconciling all Thais – not just her brother.
Thaksin has vowed to return by year's end, but he said Sunday that "I have to be part of the solution ... I don't want to return and create problems. If that's the case, I don't have to go back yet."
In a concession speech, a pale-faced Abhisit said he would continue to oppose amnesty for Thaksin, but said that "from now on, I want to see reconciliation in society."
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the most important challenge facing the incoming government will be resolving the nation's divide.
"Everyone is talking about political deals, but no one is talking about how to end impunity, restore freedom of expression and hold perpetrators accountable no matter how high up they are," Sunai said. "Without that, Thailand will never able to get out of this cycle of violence and turn itself around."
Although Thaksin is credited for awakening what has become a democratic movement among the country's marginalized poor who long stood silent, his opponents say he is no champion of freedom. During his time in office, Thaksin was loudly criticized for a sharp authoritarian streak and stood accused of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sinfah Tunsarawuth contributed to this report.