CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Nov 28 (Reuters) Martial law and strict campaign rules for Thailand's December general election are leaving candidates struggling to get their message out in the northern stronghold of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Rules restricting the size and placement of usually influential campaign billboards -- and a threat to disband parties that break them -- is helping limit politicians to knocking on doors rather than holding the usual mass rallies.
Martial law, in force in much of the region since Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless 2006 coup, is making people wary of what they said about candidates, fearing reprisals.
''With martial law in place, people are afraid of expressing their opinions, despite no evidence of intimidation by soldiers,'' orange farmer Jamras Duangchomphu told Reuters Television on condition his comments were not aired in Thailand.
The military-appointed government says it needs to maintain martial law in a third of the country for the army to deal with drug trafficking and illegal migrants, despite plans to return to a democratic government after the December 23 election.
But Thaksin supporters say martial law is part of a plan to ensure they do not win the election and prevent the return of their leader from his London exile to deal with what they say are corruption charges brought to kill his political career.
They told Thai media this week some of their candidates were intimidated by ''men with crew cuts'', a reference to soldiers, but army leaders denied the allegations and demanded evidence.
After the coup, Thaksin's political juggernaut, the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party was dissolved for electoral fraud and 111 leaders, including him, banned from politics for five years.
So Thaksin loyalists took over the small People Power Party, now tipped by several polls to emerge from the elections as the biggest single party but without an overall majority.
Despite Thaksin's prevailing popularity in his home town of Chiang Mai, analysts said People Power would not win all the 11 seats Thai Rak Thai won in the 2005 poll because new parties, some financed by the army, would take a share.
Restrictions on campaign billboards, and a rule against banned politicians appearing in photographs with candidates, were aimed at curbing Thaksin's visibility, analysts said.
However, People Power candidates were playing the sympathy card, calling on people to vote for them to bring back Thaksin to deal with corruption charges.
''Please vote for us. We will bring former prime minister Thaksin back,'' Chinnicha Wongsawat told a small campaign rally and identifying herself as Thaksin's niece and daughter of a banned politician.
''Vote for us, coups will be gone and democracy will return,'' she said.
REUTERS SW BST1000