By Nopporn Wong-Anan
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand, trying to recover from twoyears of political turmoil, braced for the return of oustedPrime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from nearly 18 months inexile on Thursday with his battle against an array of opponentsfar from over.
Rivals ranging from the royalist establishment to streetprotest leaders will confront Thaksin after a coup and anarmy-appointed government failed to dent his popularity, asdemonstrated by the general election in December that put hissupporters back in power, analysts said.
"His return shows they have managed to weather the coupd'etat and the junta has been shown up to be ineffective,"Chulalongkorn University's Giles Ungphakorn said.
Despite allegations of presiding over rampant corruption bythe generals who ousted him in a bloodless 2006 coup, Thaksinfaces only one corruption charge, although prosecutors aredeciding whether to bring more.
Newspapers and Thaksin opponents said last week's removalof the Justice Ministry official supervising a probe of Thaksinsuggested he was unlikely to see the inside of a court.
Suspicion was rife, they said, that the coalitiongovernment formed by Thaksin supporters following a Decembergeneral election was eager to make the charges go away despitepromising to let justice take its course.
The removal of the official prompted the leaders of themassive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok in 2006 tothreaten to go back to the streets if they believed that wasreally happening.
"Future street protests depend on the government's actionsand Thaksin's," protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul said.
Thaksin was due to surrender himself to police at Bangkokairport on Thursday, then go to the Supreme Court to seek bailon a corruption charge relating to his wife's purchase of aprime piece of Bangkok real estate while in office.
"I believe in my innocence, I did nothing wrong," Thaksintold Thai PBS television in Hong Kong, confirming his return toBangkok on Thursday.
"The investigation was carried out by a committee of myrivals and I am ready to prove my innocence."
Thaksin, his party dissolved after the coup and he bannedfrom politics for five years for electoral fraud, insisted onThursday he was done with politics despite widespread disbeliefat home.
Even if that were his intention, Thaksin would be draggedinto Thailand's faction-ridden politics nonetheless, analystssaid.
"We will have two prime ministers working at the same time-- one officially and the other unofficially," ChulalongkornUniversity political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said.
Tension would arise inevitably between Thaksin and SamakSundaravej, who ran in the campaign as "Thaksin's proxy" and isnow prime minister, he said.
Thaksin chose to return now because of widening rifts amongfactions in Samak's People Power Party, which leads a coalitionwith a poor image already, Thitinan said.
"If he waits too long, the PPP will lose its credibility, adubious cabinet with a lot of controversial faces," he said.
Police said they expected up to 10,000 supporters to showup at Suvarnabhumi airport, which Thaksin insisted open in 2006even though experts said it was not ready despite years ofdelay, and more than 1,000 police and soldiers would bedeployed.
"His return should help bring us a good economy as we aresuffering rising prices," 48-year-old street vendor PluengOmsin said.
(Reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Additional reporting byDarren Schuettler; Editing by Michael Battye and Bill Tarrant)