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Ousted PM's supporters to take control

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  • Exit polls show Peoples Power Party could win an outright majority
  • This is the first election since last year's military takeover
  • The bloodless coup ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra
  • PPP's victory could mean his political comeback
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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- With exit polls suggesting the People's Power Party could win an outright majority in Thailand's lower house of parliament, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej was optimistic after voting ended Sunday in the first election since last year's military takeover.

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An elephant puts a vote in a ballot box in Bangkok during a promotion for the general election.

Samak, who would be set to become Thailand's new prime minister with a PPP victory, said while his own projections show his party winning at least 270 seats, he will wait a few hours before declaring victory.

Many see PPP as a proxy for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a victory in the polls setting the stage for the ousted leader's return from exile in London. He was removed from power 15 months ago in a bloodless military coup that also banned his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.

Samak told CNN Sunday that Feb. 14 -- Valentines Day -- would be a good day for Thaksin to return from exile in London, but that he would have to face corruption charges filed against him.

"He must stay away from politics for a while," Samak said.

He said a new parliament controlled by the PPP would pass an amnesty law to allow Thaksin's return and amend the constitution to allow Thaksin to eventually return to politics.

Samak said he expected the military leaders were ready to accept a PPP-led government.

Since its transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one 75 years ago, Thailand has seen its government overthrown by coups 18 times.

While dozens of political parties were competing, the race came down to two fundamental choices: candidates backed by the army and its interim government, and those who support Thaksin, a 58-year-old telecommunications tycoon who owns the English Premier League Manchester City Football Club.

Thaksin's party won two landslide victories before he was accused of corruption and deposed last September.

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Military rulers banned Thaksin's party and changed the constitution, in part to weaken the power of the prime minister. The generals promised to return Thailand to a civilian government, and they are delivering on it with Sunday's elections.

Samak, like Thaksin, has tapped into the kingdom's rural poor, many of whom feel left out of Thailand's rapid development.

"The rural majority have been awakened," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

"This is the real silent majority, and they are not going back to sleep. They will vote for Thai Rak Thai again, under a different name this time: the People Power Party."

About 5,000 candidates from more than three dozen parties vied for 480 seats in the parliament's lower house. In most cases, their names didn't appear on the ballot; voters had to remember them by assigned numbers.

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The only serious challenger to Thaksin loyalists was Abhisit Vejjajiva, the fresh-faced, Oxford-educated leader of the Democrat party, who enjoys support in the cities. His party, based on exit poll projections, appeared to have won about 162 seats.

"I think I'm in a battle against all old corrupt leadership of the country," Abhisit said. "Thaksin included." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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