The proxy party of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appeared poised for victory Sunday in fractious Thailand’s elections, according to exit polls. If confirmed, the result would mark an extraordinary political comeback for Mr. Thaksin and his allies five tumultuous years after his overthrow in a military coup.

Preliminary results from the Election Commission indicated a tighter race, but the party of Thaksin’s 44-year-old sister Yingluck Shinawatra was still in the lead.

If successful, Ms. Yingluck would become the Southeast Asian kingdom’s first female prime minister. A large mandate to govern could make it easier to navigate a way out of the political crisis that has plagued Thailand since the 2006. But the question remains whether the nation’s elite power brokers, including the monarchy and the army, would accept the result.

In an interview broadcast on the Thai PBS television station, Mr. Thaksin called the preliminary outcome “a step forward.”

“People are tired of a standstill,” he said from the desert emirate of Dubai, where he lives in exile to avoid a two—year prison sentence for graft he says is politically motivated. “They want to see change in a peaceful manner.”

Mr. Thaksin said he did not feel vengeful and was “ready to forgive all.”

The army toppled Mr. Thaksin in 2006, and controversial court rulings removed two of the pro-Thaksin premiers who followed, one of whom won elections intended to restore democracy in 2007. That chain of events paved the way for army—backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to assume power -- ultimately sparking the massive anti—government protests last year which brought Bangkok to its knees, leaving 90 people dead, 1,800 wounded and the glittering city’s skyline engulfed in flames.

Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated his vow last week to stay neutral in the vote, dismissing rumours the military would stage another coup.

“The future depends on whether the traditional elite will be willing to accept the voice of the people,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told The Associated Press.

The more Yingluck’s party wins by, he said, “the more stable her government will be, the more difficult it will be for the elite to do anything against it.”

At her party headquarters, Yingluck held back from declaring victory. “I’m glad,” she told a cheering crowd. “But I’d rather wait for the official” outcome to be declared later Sunday.

Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for Abhisit’s ruling Democrat party, issued a statement saying simply- “We believe all sides will respect the results.”

Two exit polls were released after polls closed at 3 p.m.

One, the Suan Dusit university poll, gave Yingluck’s party 313 of 500 parliament seats, compared to 152 seats for the ruling Democrat party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Another poll by Bangkok’s Assumption University gave Pheu Thai 299 seats compared to 132 for the Democrats.

Pheu Thai needs more than 250 seats to form a government without help from smaller parties.

The photogenic Yingluck has long been seen as the front—runner in the vote. Her popularity is almost entirely due to fact that she is the proxy of Mr. Thaksin, who calls her “my clone.” Mr. Thaksin, 61, has been legally barred from politics after a corruption conviction and lives in a luxury residence in Dubai to avoid a two—year jail sentence for graft.

His ascent to power in 2001 changed Thailand forever, touching off a societal schism between the country’s haves and long—silent have-nots. The marginalized rural poor hail his populism, while the elite establishment sees him as a corrupt, autocratic threat to the status quo and even to the revered constitutional monarchy.

That schism has played out through pro— and anti—Thaksin street protests since the 2006 coup. The vote, many believe, is largely about the divisive legacy he left behind.

For a nation of 66 million people known to tourists as “the Land of Smiles,” much is at stake.

Last year’s demonstrations marked some of the nation’s worst violence in two decades and left Thailand’s reputation for stability in tatters. Holding the ballot was one of the protesters demands, though they wanted it held last year.

Oxford—educated Abhisit has used his campaign to blame the opposition and its supporters for burning Bangkok last year, saying a vote for Yingluck would be a vote for chaos. He has also declared the poll “the best opportunity to remove the poison of Thaksin from Thailand.”

Abhisit and his allies believe Yingluck is plotting Mr. Thaksin’s return through a proposed amnesty that would apply for political crimes committed since the coup. Yingluck says it is aimed at reconciling all Thais -- not just her brother.

Mr. haksin has vowed to return by year’s end, but he said Sunday that “I have to be part of the solution ... I don’t want to return and create problems. If that’s the case, I don’t have to go back yet.”

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the most important challenge facing the incoming government will be resolving the nation’s divide.

“Everyone is talking about political deals, but no one is talking about how to end impunity, restore freedom of expression and hold perpetrators accountable no matter how high up they are,” Sunai said. “Without that, Thailand will never able to get out of this cycle of violence and turn itself around.”

Although Mr. Thaksin is credited for awakening what has become a democratic movement among the country’s marginalized poor who long stood silent, his opponents say he is no champion of freedom. During his time in office, Mr. Thaksin was loudly criticized for a sharp authoritarian streak and stood accused of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

More In: International | News