Thai opposition leader begins poll campaign

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, May 21, 2011 (AFP) - The sister of Thailand's former leader Thaksin Shinawatra put the fugitive tycoon at the centre of her own bid to lead the country on Saturday in the first major rally in her election campaign.

Yingluck Shinawatra told a gathering of several thousand supporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai that her brother, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, was key to her Puea Thai party's battle for the July 3 poll.

"Thaksin helped to map out our party policy and I, Yingluck, will implement it," she told the crowd in a packed indoor gymnasium on the outskirts of her home city, a stronghold of the opposition "Red Shirt" movement.

Yingluck, who addressed the crowd in the local dialect, also promised a return to Thaksin's populist policies, which made the divisive premier a hero to many of the mainly rural, working-class Reds.

Thaksin's youngest sister presents the biggest challenge for incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrats in what is expected to be a closely-fought election.

But she is politically inexperienced and viewed as a proxy for Thaksin, who is widely considered the de facto leader of the Puea Thai party despite living abroad to escape a jail term imposed in absentia for corruption.

Yingluck addressed fears over her abilities in her speech, telling supporters "politics is in my blood, I have learnt a lot from Thaksin".

Thailand remains deeply divided a year after more than 90 people were killed during anti-government Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok.

Observers fear the election could bring more unrest and possibly even another military coup if the opposition wins.

Abhisit's political foes view his government as an unelected puppet of the military and the establishment because it came to power after a 2008 judicial ruling threw out the previous administration, headed by Thaksin's brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat.

Somchai accompanied Yingluck on a tour of Chiang Mai early Saturday as she visited various religious sites and met voters on the city streets.

Puea Thai is considering issuing an amnesty to politicians who have been charged or convicted if it wins the election, potentially paving the way for Thaksin to return to Thailand.

The party has wide support among the Reds and about 10 of the protest movement's leaders have registered as Puea Thai candidates.

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