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Thaksin looms large in Thailand's first postcoup vote

Politicians echo the exiled leader's populist promises ahead of elections next week.

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Free education. New roads. Subsidized rice. Tax cuts and cheap gas.

On Thailand's campaign trail, the future looks bright as politicians stump for votes before the Dec. 23 parliamentary elections, the first to be held under a new Constitution after last year's military takeover. But parsing the sunny pledges of the political parties is testing the patience of voters.

Those similarities aren't lost on voters such as Chaliew Chaiwan, an electrician in this northern stronghold of the former ruling Thai Rak Thai party and its exiled leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.

"All these promises look the same," says Mr. Chaliew as he flips through a stack of leaflets at his house. "Many parties have seen that Thai Rak Thai policies are popular, so they're copying them."

As Thailand prepares for a democratic transition after 15 months of military rule, the brand of top-down economic populism introduced by the ousted former prime minister is everywhere. All the major parties in the running, including spinoffs from the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party, have gilded their platforms with vote-getting promises that range from the optimistic to the unthinkable, say analysts. With polls pointing to a coalition government, making them stick will be difficult.

At the same time, the potent legacy of Mr. Thaksin, who is living in exile in Britain, hangs over the elections. Barred from returning to Thailand where he faces criminal charges over a land deal, Thaksin is nevertheless a fixture on the campaign trail as friends and foes alike invoke his name, either to claim his mantle or belittle his record. In many rural areas, his popularity is so strong that some opponents avoid frontal attacks in order to win over potential swing voters.

The party most closely linked to Thaksin is the People's Power Party (PPP), which styles itself as Thai Rak Thai 2.0. Its candidates say that a vote for PPP is a vote for the return of Thaksin and the economic growth of his rule, as well as a democratic retort to the generals who ousted him.

Chinnicha Wongsawat, a PPP candidate in Chiang Mai, says voters should elect her pro-Thaksin party over the others, because it has a track record of delivering on pledges such as subsidized healthcare and rural microcredit.

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