(AFP) - Thousands of Thais filled two main parks in Bangkok on Friday for the final rallies ahead of weekend elections, which are meant to restore democracy after more than a year of military rule.
People will head to polling booths on Sunday in the first vote since twice-elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a bloodless coup in September 2006 after months of political turmoil and street protests.
Many of Thailand's 45.65 million voters are hoping the elections will bring stability to a nation that has seen 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
The military has relentlessly tried to dismantle Thaksin's political machine, the fallen premier remains a major force in the elections even though he has lived in self-imposed exile in Britain since the coup.
His allies, campaigning as the People Power Party (PPP) led by fiery right-winger Samak Sundaravej , drew more than 18,000 people to the Sanam Luang plaza in Bangkok's historic district, according to police.
Samak and the PPP are leading the polls going into the election, largely by promising a return of Thaksin's policies that fueled economic growth by aggressively courting foreign investment and giving rural Thailand a massive injection of cash.
The military-installed government has repeatedly spooked foreign investors and shaken domestic confidence, leaving Thailand's economic growth lagging behind the region.
"Our economy will not deteriorate further next year as we have capable people who will revive our economy," Samak told the cheering crowd, some of whom wore Thaksin masks as they applauded.
Samak has also promised that if his party wins the polls, it will bring Thaksin back from Britain, where he has bought Manchester City football club.
PPP's main rival, the Democrat Party led by Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva , drew about 2,000 people to a small park next to a posh mall in downtown Bangkok, police said.
Abhisit has struggled to draw voters attention away from Thaksin and to broaden his party's appeal beyond Bangkok's middle classes and Thailand's southern provinces -- the traditional Democrat stronghold.
"This Sunday's election is not just about the junta and Thaksin . Thais cast their ballots this Sunday for the future of the country," he told the cheering crowd.
"Thai people have learned the lesson of old politics. This Sunday we have to bring a major change to restore peace in the country," he said.
But the country remains fiercely divided, with the poorer northeast still loyal to Thaksin , while people in more prosperous Bangkok and the central regions are vehemently opposed to the return of the millionaire politician.
"What emerges very clearly is this election is about whether or not you support Thaksin and (his party) Thai Rak Thai, or whether or not you support the junta and those who opposed him," said Giles Ji Ungpakorn , a politics lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Analysts predict that neither party will win an outright majority of the 480 seats up for grabs, forcing them to form a coalition with a clutch of smaller outfits.
Observers question how free and fair elections can be when more than one-third of the country, mainly Thaksin's electoral bases, is still under martial law.
The election takes place under an army-backed constitution, approved in an August referendum, that weakens the powers of the prime minister while giving more authority to the military and bureaucracy.
The military also got a last-minute boost when the army-installed parliament late Thursday approved a new security law that was heavily criticised for giving the generals broad powers to suspend basic rights.
Election campaigning has so far been uninspired, Giles said, with the policies of the main parties largely indistinguishable as they scramble to try to fill the hole left by TRT.
"It isn't very exciting in the sense that it doesn't really matter what anyone says or puts forward in the campaign -- I think most people know which side of the major divide they stand," said Giles.