Thailand's opposition swept to power in a surprise election landslide on Sunday, led by the sister of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a victory for the rural and urban poor red-shirt protesters who clashed with the army last year.
Exit polls showed Yingluck Shinawatra's Puea Thai (For Thais) party winning a clear majority of parliament's 500 seats, paving the way for the 44-year-old business executive to become Thailand's first woman prime minister.
"Mr Thaksin called me to congratulate me and encourage me," Yingluck said of her billionaire brother, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in Dubai to avoid jail for graft charges that he says were politically motivated.
"He told me that there is still much hard work ahead of us," she told a throng of reporters.
Polling by Bangkok's Suan Dusit University, considered the most historically reliable, showed Puea Thai winning 313 seats with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party taking just 152 -- worse than the Democrats' last performance in 2007 and dismal enough to threaten Abhisit's job as party leader.
Bangkok's Assumption University put the number of seats won by the opposition at 299 in its exit poll.
Democrat Party spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks urged voters to wait for official results. With nearly 50 percent of total votes counted, Yingluck's party had won just 249 of the 500 seats, according to the Election Commission.
Still, Yingluck's supporters remain jubilant. Earlier they erupted in roars and cheers as television broadcast the exit polls.
"Number one Yingluck", some shouted. "Prime Minister Yingluck" screamed others, as party members slapped each other on the back.
The results are a rebuke of the traditional establishment of generals, old-money families and royal advisers in Bangkok who loathed Thaksin and backed Abhisit, born in Britain and educated at Oxford as an economist, who struggled to find a common touch.
"People wanted change and they got it," said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, chief executive of Asia Plus Securities in Bangkok. "It tells you that a majority of people still want most of the things that the ex-prime minister had done for the country in the past."
Yingluck was feted like a rock-star by the red shirts who designated entire communities in Thailand's rugged, vote-rich northeast plateau as "red shirt villages" to help mobilize supporters.
They accuse the rich, the establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity - grievances that have simmered since the 2006 coup which overthrew her brother -- and have clamored for Thaksin's return.
Thaksin said he would "wait for the right moment" to return to Thailand. "If my return is going to cause problems, then I will not do it yet. I should be a solution, not a problem," he told reporters in Dubai.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005 and remains idolized by the poor as the first politician to address the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok's bright lights.
Yingluck electrified his supporters, ran a disciplined campaign and promised Thaksin-style populist policies, including a big rise in the national minimum wage and free tablet PCs for nearly one million school children.
Abhisit had warned of instability if Yingluck wins, blaming the red shirts for last year's violence and casting Thaksin as an authoritarian crony capitalist and fugitive whose return to Thailand could exacerbate a six-year political crisis.
But after 91 people, mostly civilians, were killed in last year's unrest, Abhisit's denial that troops were responsible for a single death or injury was mocked even in the Democrat stronghold of Bangkok. A web-savvy generation could, with a few mouse-clicks, watch videos on YouTube showing military snipers firing on civilians.
Abhisit's backers want Thaksin to serve a two-year prison term. They warn that Yingluck is a proxy for her brother and would clear the way for his quick return.
Throughout the six-week campaign, the two sides presented similar populist campaigns of subsidies for the poor, improved healthcare benefits and infrastructure investment including high-speed rail systems across the country.
Some analysts said the clear majority will make it easier for the opposition to make good on its campaign promises.
The election is Thailand's 26th since it became a democracy in 1932, ending seven centuries of absolute monarchy. It has since been governed by 17 constitutions and has experienced 18 military coups, either actual or attempted.
Recent opinion polls had suggested Puea Thai would win at least 240 seats, a threshold that was no guarantee it could govern. Most had doubted it either side would secure an outright majority, predicting back-room talks with smaller parties would prove crucial for forming a coalition.
With stakes so high, the vote is a test for Thailand's courts, which handed down rulings that removed two prime ministers, disbanded six parties, jailed three election commissioners and banned more than 250 politicians since the 2006 coup.
Analysts and legal experts say those precedents suggest the courts could ultimately dictate who holds political power in the months after the election, and some fear Yingluck could still be prevented from governing.
"Definitely there will be some resistance," Thaksin said of Yingluck's rivals. "But I don't think it will be that much. Those who benefit from conflict are still around. I want to urge them to sacrifice for country."
According to some reports, the Puea Thai camp had been in talks with the generals to find some way of working together should it emerge victorious. Puea Thai would be allowed to govern and the military top brass would remain in place, with early reshuffles limited to middle ranks.