The man who turned disaster into victory

Thaksin Shinawatra has become the first Thai prime minister to serve a second term. Jan McGirk reports from Bangkok on a billionaire politician who favours Burberry, BMWs and blunt speaking

He is Asia's answer to the Third Way, who like Tony Blair is loved and loathed in equal measure. And like Silvio Berlusconi, he's got the cash, lots of it, and loves to flaunt it.

Yesterday Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai prime minister to be elected for a second term, essentially rode the tsunami to his overwhelming victory yesterday after his bold handling of the disaster boosted his popularity in the six devastated southern provinces.

The political party he founded, the Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai), has won a clear mandate to lead for another four years. The main opposition Democrat Party, which had hoped to squeak through with 201 seats in the 500-seat parliament and prevent a majority for Mr Thaksin's party, conceded defeat in yesterday's general election before any ballot papers were even tallied.

"I would like to congratulate Thai Rak Thai for achieving its goal of being a single-party government," the Democrat leader, Banyat Bantadtan, said after exit polls indicated that Mr Thaksin's party would hold at least 399 of the 500 seats. Official results were expected late last night. "I would like to encourage the two other opposition parties to join the Democrat party in monitoring the government for the benefit of the people," Mr Banyat added.

Turnout was high, with an estimated 70 per cent of the 44.9 million potential voters casting ballots for 20 different parties.

The formidable Mr Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire and former police colonel, rose to power in 2001 by campaigning on free health care and largesse to farmers. He prides himself on being a no-nonsense law and order advocate, schooled at the Sam Houston University in Texas. His first term was nearly a non-starter after he was charged with concealing his business assets and faced a five-year ban from public office. But a constitutional court cleared him by a single vote and he never looked back.

Mr Thaksin, 55, is the only elected prime minister to complete a full term in office without being toppled by a coup, and now feels vindicated in his brash, CEO-style leadership. Under his watch Thailand has rebounded from the 1997 financial crisis detonated by the fall of the baht. "People have faith in me," Mr Thaksin said at his last rally. "It will be much better because we have strategies, we have plans and we will push them forward," he promised.

He drove to the polls in a BMW, wearing a Burberry check sports shirt and a big grin, and joined his wife and three adult children in a staged photocall.

Ironically, because Mr Thaksin's $1.4bn (pounds 743m) personal fortune was founded on his family's mobile phone conglomerate, the Election Commission confiscated cellphones from voting booths. Officials were prepared to arrest voters who snapped a picture of their completed ballot papers with a camera phone as proof to claim a payment. Earlier, the Election Commission admitted that campaigning had been riddled with corruption. One poll estimated that some 10 billion baht (pounds 139m) was budgeted to buy votes. Some 10,000 extra security troops were deployed in the three southernmost provinces during polling, but posters of the Prime Minister were set alight.

The blunt-speaking Mr Thaksin faltered repeatedly last year, but the Thai economy kept fizzing. The intelligentsia attacked him for his alleged cronyism, and for bungling the bird flu epidemic and nearly bankrupting the lucrative poultry industry. His inability to control sectarian violence in the Muslim-dominated south, where nearly 700 people have died in conflict this year, was perhaps his weakest point. Mr Thaksin's refusal to apologise for the deaths of 78 Muslim protesters who were smothered on their way to military detention last autumn had inflamed the separatist attacks near the Malaysian border, and he was twice reprimanded by the king for his arrogance. The Prime Minister's response was to "peace-bomb" the three restive Muslim provinces with 100 million folded paper doves. An earlier diversion tactic was proposing a public lottery to raise funds for a stake in the Premiership football club Liverpool, which never came to fruition.

The Prime Minister's thin-skinned impatience with his detractors also raised red flags. Human rights activists decried his draconian crackdown on methamphetamine dealers, in which at least 2,500 people named on a blacklist were killed by death squads during 2003. "Murder is not an unusual fate for wicked people," Mr Thaksin responded. Despite accusations by the United Nations of extrajudicial killings, the public wholeheartedly approved the crusade against drugs, and he revived the campaign last year. When Washington refused to back the strategy, he labelled the American administration "a useless friend".A member of President George Bush's "coalition of the willing", Mr Thaksin sent 470 troops to the reconstruction effort in Iraq, where Thailand suffered its first foreign battlefield deaths since the Vietnam War when two Thai soldiers were killed by a truck bomb.

After the drug crackdown and curbs on liquor licensing hours, some Thais grouse that under Mr Thaksin's leadership their nation is beginning to resemble the rich but authoritarian city state of Singapore. There is no disputing this from Bangkok. Mr Thaksin has repeatedly said that he admires Singapore because the weak opposition there cannot get in the way of governing.

Some analysts now predict that Thailand's newly re-elected Prime Minister will be tempted to run again for a third and possibly a fourth term. He gains stature on the global stage by calling international summit meetings on issues that bedevil the region, from terrorist threats to avian influenza or installing tsunami warning systems.

His ambitions to install himself as the new regional strongman of south- east Asia, emulating Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew or Malaysia's outspoken former leader Mahathir Mohamad, are transparent. Like these iron-fisted rulers, Mr Thaksin promotes intense nationalism and upward mobility. But to succeed, he may need more than his much-vaunted Thaksinomics. The soft loans, free spectacles for the elderly and the loan of cows to struggling farmers have endeared him to the rural poor, who comprise 75 per cent of the population.

When Thailand paid off a debt to the International Monetary Fund mid- term, it was ballyhooed as "independence day" and all government offices flew the Thai colours to celebrate. The economic growth rate tops 6 per cent and is second only to China. Rural income has soared by 20 per cent. Yet, according to Duncan McCargo, an expert in Asian politics from Leeds, "Thaksin should use his second term to reinvent himself ... by raising his game and graduating to a south-east Asian statesman".

"Every time Thaksin says he is not a dictator, one gets goosebumps," wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, a commentator from a Bangkok daily, last month. "Every time he says he is just following the rules of democracy, he violates its very spirit."

"This election should be about the violence in the south and human rights abuses by this government. It should be about the best way to deal with privatisation and free trade agreements," complained Giles Ungphakorn, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "In fact, none of these things were discussed in this election."

Two Election Commission volunteers were killed in the south by gunmen during campaigning last month. There have been sporadic attacks against police, soldiers and government workers in the troubled Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces. Mr Thaksin blames these attacks on radicals brainwashed at Islamic schools. Earlier, he had played down the strife, and attributed it to cross-border bandits and smugglers. Later he riled neighbouring powers by suggesting that the insurgents were learning extremism in Indonesia and getting weapons training in Malaysia. After these diplomatic gaffes, Malaysia has refused to extradite a prominent Islamic dissident arrested near the shared frontier.

But when Thailand was bludgeoned by killer waves on Boxing Day, and lost an estimated 8,400 people in a single morning, all else was forgotten. Mr Thaksin's hands-on approach proved inspirational. He rushed to Phuket and Khao Lak to tour the destruction with his ministers, consoling survivors and rolling up his sleeves to deal with the devastation. He rejected foreign aid tied to loans, promised compensation to fishermen and farmers and pushed hard to revitalise the travel industry. In the aftershock, debate about the Prime Minister's excesses was soon silenced. A second term for this tough tycoon from a Chiang Mai silk merchant family comes as no surprise.

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