CHAIYAPHUM (Thailand) • Thailand holds its first election in eight years on Sunday under rules concocted by a junta to keep it in power, but with the appeal of both old foes and the new millennial vote posing an unpredictable challenge.
The junta seized power in 2014, vowing to rescue the country from a treadmill of coups, short-lived civilian governments and protests. But the kingdom goes to the polls as divided as ever.
Standing in its way are supporters of its nemesis, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has dominated Thai politics since his first election win in 2001.
He was toppled by an earlier coup in 2006, but his affiliated Pheu Thai party taps a deep seam of loyalty from the poor but populous rural north and north-east.
Thousands of rice farmers gathered in a school yard earlier this week for a Pheu Thai rally in rural Chaiyaphum, applauding promises of better times ahead under an elected government and whistling disapproval at every mention of the junta.
"We still love Thaksin... We want him to come back," said 65-year-old Lamoon Moosorping.
Thaksin-allied parties hope to win a comfortable majority of the 500 elected seats up for grabs across a country wearied by junta rule.
But Sunday's election is the first under new rules where winning the popular vote does not automatically translate into leading a government, or choosing the next prime minister.
Instead, 250 junta-appointed senators are poised to play a key role in shaping the next administration. With the Senate onside, the junta-linked party needs just 126 elected seats to secure a parliamentary majority - setting up a potential collision over a denied mandate.
"Forming a government and governing will be different," warned Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"We will probably see some kind of deadlock... that will lead to some kind of constitutional crisis."
With days to go, election fever has gripped much of a country starved for nearly five years of political expression.
Advance voting last Sunday saw a near 90 per cent turnout, while acerbic commentary, memes and satirical swipes are pinballing across social media.
More than seven million millennials are eligible to vote for the first time, most of them unencumbered by old political loyalties - injecting uncertainty into the outcome.
Sunday's polls will essentially be a "vote on the military", said Thailand expert and historian Chris Baker.
With much of the country viscerally opposed either to the junta or to Thaksin, the ballot will be "more emotional than rational", he added.