BANGKOK, Thailand Allies of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appeared to emerge as victors in Thailand's post-coup election Sunday but failed to secure an absolute majority in parliament, according to unofficial results from the Election Commission.
The outcome is likely to deepen the country's two-year political crisis.
With 80 percent of the vote counted, the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party won 230 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament, the Election Commission said.
The rival Democrat Party won 161 seats.
PPP's head Samak Sundaravej told a news conference that Thaksin, who was said to be in Hong Kong, had telephoned after hearing the results.
"Thaksin said congratulations," Samak told a news conference, calling on "any political parties" to join PPP to form a coalition government.
Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in September 2006 but retains widespread popularity among the rural majority. PPP campaigned on a platform of bringing Thaksin back from exile in London and continuing his populist policies.
Samak said he was expecting Thaksin to return to Thailand after a government is formed, which he said might take about one month.
Samak said that if given an opportunity, the PPP would grant amnesty to Thaksin and 110 executives of his now outlawed Thai Rak Thai Party who were barred from office for five years.
"They didn't do anything wrong," he said.
Full results were expected before noon EST in an election billed as a return to democracy after 15 months of military-backed government.
Failure to capture an absolute majority might allow the Democrat Party to bring in partners to form a coalition government.
"If the PPP succeeds in forming the government, the Democrat Party is really to be in the opposition to protect the people's interest. However, if the PPP fails to form a government, the Democrat Party is also ready to form a government," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva.
Intense horse-trading is expected in coming days, even weeks, before a government is formed and a new prime minister announced.
Some victors may also lose their seats if found guilty of electoral violations.
Ruangroj Jomsueb, an Election Commission spokeman, said the commission was investigating more than 100 cases of irregularities, mostly related to vote-buying which was reportedly rampant in rural areas.
Voters among the 45 million eligible cast ballots for about 5,000 candidates from 39 political parties.
The contest pitted the PPP, seen as a reincarnation of Thaksin's outlawed Thai Rak Thai Party, against the Democrat Party, the country's oldest.
PPP leaders said Thaksin, who was watching the election from Hong Kong, would return to Thailand early next year, sparking fears of continued political turbulence and sharp polarization.
"The economy was prosperous when Thaksin was prime minister and I voted for the People's Power Party because the party leader promised to bring Thaksin back to the country," said Pranee Teamsri, the owner of a tailor shop on Bangkok's outskirts after emerging from a polling station.
But others in Bangkok, where the Democrat Party is strong, criticized Thaksin's regime for its corruption, saying the former leader had left Thailand in "a mess."
The top rivals for next prime minister are a study in stark contrasts.
Samak, 72, is an acid-tongued, ultra-rightist dubbed a political dinosaur by the local press. He has been charged with involvement in corrupt deals while serving as Bangkok's mayor. But he is seen as Thaksin's proxy and his earthy style appeals to many.
The 43-year-old Vejjajiva is regarded as an intelligent, honest politician but lacking the common touch needed to connect with the mass electorate. English-born and educated at Eton and Oxford, critics say he is more comfortable in elite circles than wooing the key rural voters.
Thaksin faces a slew of corruption charges but remains popular among the rural masses and lower income urban residents to whom he offered cheap loans, virtually free medical care and village based development schemes.
The prospect of Thaksin's return has raised fears of another coup by the powerful military.
Last week, the military-installed parliament approved a controversial internal security law that critics warned will allow the military to maintain a grip on power even after the election.
The election comes after almost two years of intense political instability that began with popular demonstrations demanding that Thaksin resign because of alleged corruption and abuse of power. The protest culminated in the coup.
After the coup, Thaksin, a 58-year-old billionaire, was barred from office for five years and charged with a barrage of corruption-related crimes. He lives in self-imposed exile in England, where he owns the Manchester City soccer club.