Suk Somboon village turned red when its 200 residents gathered together and chanting monks made offerings.

They tied scarlet thread around wrists, put up flags along the road and erected a metal sign declaring their new status.

"It's a red district anyway. The point is the symbolism," said Kwanchai Praipana, a prominent redshirt leader from Thailand's Udon Thani province.

"The aim is to show we want justice, democracy and Thaksin [Shinawatra] to return."

Hundreds of northeastern settlements have proclaimed themselves "red democracy villages" since yesterday's general election was announced.

The redshirt movement highlights a bitter division that claimed more than 90 lives last year and is focused on the former Prime Minister, whose face adorns Suk Somboon's new sign.

Thaksin, the owner of Manchester City FC for 15 months from June 2007, defines Thai politics even from 4830km away in Dubai, where he lives to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power.

The redshirt-associated party Puea Thai - led by his sister Yingluck - is on course to beat the incumbent Democrats. Television stations reported long lines at polling stations as voters chose a new 500-member Parliament. Security was tight, with around 170,000 police deployed to protect booths.

Last night exit polls showed the party winning an absolute majority - far more than the 250 of 500 seats it would need to form the next government. Preliminary results from the Election Commission were expected today.

Jon Ungpakhorn, an activist and former senator, warned last week: "There is a clear danger of violence on a scale closer to civil war if either side is provoked by extreme measures."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: "The core issue is whether the Thai people want to move the country forward beyond the conflict created by, and surrounding, one man."

But Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Chulalongkorn University, said the underlying issue was the political awakening of a marginalised electorate.

Thitinan described Thaksin as "an agent and catalyst for this newly emergent Thailand".

"He does not see it that way - he sees it as all about him. On the one hand, it's Thaksin manipulating and exploiting the forces he unleashed. On the other hand, his adversaries deny these voices because they don't want to confront them. But these are the people who will ultimately determine Thailand's political direction."