Bangkok: Thailand`s election battle got into full swing on Thursday as a planned opposition rally to mourn protesters killed in a military crackdown a year ago underscored simmering political tensions.
The vote, set for July 03, is shaping up to be a close fight pitting Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva`s establishment-backed Democrats against allies of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Registrations for candidates under the proportional representation system began on Thursday and Abhisit took two days` leave from his official duties to throw his hat in the ring to win a second term, and hit the campaign trail.
The British-born, Oxford-educated Premier`s party, Thailand`s oldest, draws most of its support from Bangkok and the south but it has not won a general election in nearly two decades.
Abhisit took over as the head of a coalition government in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a judicial ruling threw out the previous administration, and he is accused by his political foes of being an unelected puppet of the military and the establishment.
His main rival in the lower house election race is Thaksin`s youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is the main opposition Puea Thai party`s candidate for premier.
Parties affiliated to Thaksin have won the most seats in the past four elections, but courts reversed the results of the last two polls.
Puea Thai won a psychological victory on Thursday when it was allocated the top spot on the ballot paper, selecting number one in a lottery to decide how 26 parties contesting the vote would be ranked. Democrats selected number 10.
"People still love and are concerned about our family. We owe the people," Yingluck said in an interview with Thai television broadcast late Wednesday.
If it wins, her party is considering issuing an amnesty to politicians, including Thaksin, who have been charged or convicted.
But Yingluck denied her brother would get special treatment.
"I don`t want people to only focus on an amnesty only. I want people to rely on reconciliation and justice first," the 43-year-old businesswoman said. "Everything must be done by the rules, equally for everyone."
Although he lives abroad to escape a jail term imposed in absentia for corruption, Thaksin is widely considered the de facto leader of the Puea Thai party and his politically inexperienced sister is viewed as his proxy.
Abhisit on Thursday challenged Yingluck to produce a clear set of policies.
"We want to set a democratic standard so whoever wants to run for the post of Prime Minister should tell the people their vision," he said.
Puea Thai has wide support among the largely rural and working-class Red Shirts, whose mass anti-government rallies in the capital last year sparked violence that left more than 90 people dead in clashes with armed troops.
Thaksin, a former billionaire telecoms tycoon who led his party to landslide victories in 2001 and 2005, is hailed by the Reds for his policies for the poor while in power.
But he is regarded by the Thai ruling elite as authoritarian, corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy, and faces terrorism charges in Thailand, accused of bankrolling last year`s protests and instigating unrest.
Tens of thousands of Red Shirts were expected to gather in the retail heart of the capital to mark the first anniversary of the army`s assault on their protest base, which ended the two-month-long rally.
Thailand has suffered years of political instability, punctuated by unrest and military intervention, with 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, when the country became a constitutional monarchy.
The current Army chief has ruled out another coup, but that has not dampened speculation of possible fresh military intervention.