SANKAMPHAENG, June 29, 2011 (AFP) - With his vast riches and family ties, fugitive former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra may be on the verge of a remarkable comeback, despite being convicted of graft and wanted on terrorism charges.
But if his opposition Puea Thai Party wins this weekend's election, as polls suggest is likely, the controversial ex-premier will have to savour victory from afar.
Ousted in a military coup five years ago, the former tycoon lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, having fled Thailand in 2008 before a court sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison for corruption.
The 61-year-old remains an idol for many rural and working class voters for his populist policies while in power, but is hated by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy.
"People who thought that the coup of 2006 was going to be the flush of the toilet for Thaksin were absolutely wrong," according to Thailand expert Paul Chambers.
Parties linked to Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, have won the most seats in the past four elections, but the courts reversed the results of the last two polls, angering his supporters.
Today he is seen as the driving force behind Puea Thai, whose candidate for premier is none other than his youngest sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But not all the family is happy with Thaksin's efforts to return to the political limelight.
"His father wouldn't support him if he were still alive," Thaksin's 82-year-old aunt Taowan Shinawatra told AFP in an interview at her home in northern Thailand, saying he should stick to business.
"We have enough as it is. We don't need to go into politics. People who go into politics can't let go of the prestige. He is obsessed by it."
Many think Thaksin would continue to call the shots if the opposition wins, and its campaign slogan -- "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does" -- appears to leave little doubt.
Far from trying to ignore him, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made his rival a central theme of his own election battle, urging voters "to get rid of the poison of Thaksin."
The ex-premier remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand, where he faces a raft of criminal charges including terrorism -- an accusation linked to mass opposition protests by his "Red Shirt" supporters last year that turned deadly.
If found guilty, he could in theory face the death penalty.
The opposition has proposed an amnesty for convicted politicians if it wins the election -- a move apparently aimed at bringing Thaksin home.
But many doubt the Bangkok-based elite in government, military and palace circles would allow him to return a free man.
"I don't think Thaksin will be coming back to Thailand any time soon. I think if he does, that would be a green light for a possible coup," said Chambers, a senior research fellow at Payap University in northern Thailand.
Born into one of the most prominent ethnic Chinese families in northern Chiang Mai province, Thaksin, whose father was also a politician, gave up a brief career with the police to study in the United States.
He went on to form telecoms giant Shin Corp and in 1998 moved into politics when he started his own political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais).
He was elected as prime minister in 2001 -- becoming the country's first premier to serve a full term -- and re-elected four years later to create Thailand's first single party government in seven decades.
In the Shinawatra family's hometown of Sankamphaeng, famous for its fine silks, the boy who used to sell coffee and ice cream at his father's shop is still a hero to many.
"He was a good boy, very kind," said 79-year-old market vendor Somjit Suwanthip. "He helped the country. I want to see him back."
As well as his sibling, Thaksin also has a niece standing for parliament in northern Thailand and a son at the helm of a media group, Voice TV, which gives prominence to the family's political activities..
The former tycoon, who insists he has no ambition to lead Thailand again, describes his youngest sister as his "clone" -- a description she says underlines their similar thinking.
"We are alike in the sense that I have learned from him in business and I understand his vision, how he solves problems and the way he built everything from the beginning," Yingluck told AFP on the campaign trail.
She makes no secret of her attempt to ride on her brother's coat-tails.
In a careful choreographed campaign, she starts her rallies by asking the crowd: "I don't know how much you love Thaksin. But can you share some of this love for me, his younger sister?"