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Thailand's PM Gains Support After Handling Tsunami Devastation

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The tsunami that caused death and destruction in southern Thailand last month also pushed aside political debate in the run-up to the February 6 national elections. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's forceful handling of the disaster has boosted his party's chances at the ballot box.

When the tsunami slammed into the beaches of southern Thailand in late December, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was quick to travel to the island of Phuket to direct the relief operation. He pressed security and rescue officials to speed up efforts to locate the thousands of people who had died or disappeared.

Thai television viewers, gripped by the tragedy's dramatic events, saw their prime minister, a wealthy business tycoon before turning to politics, exercising his management style.

Bob Broadfoot, managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, and says Mr. Thaksin's efforts appear to have been effective. "He's done a fairly good job of mobilizing the relief - assigning specific assignments to ministers so they are able to focus on functions without tripping over each other's toes," said Mr. Broadfoot.

The result, many analysts say, is that Mr. Thaksin may have significantly boosted his Thai Rak Thai party's prospects in the country's February 6 election. The prime minister came to power four years ago.

Analysts say the prime minister and his party had been losing support before the disaster struck. But Somjai Phagaphasvivat, who teaches political science at Thammasat University, says the sight of Mr. Thaksin taking charge changed public perceptions.

"All of a sudden with the tsunami event, the popularity of the Thai Rak Thai and also of the premier has been on the rise again," he said. "Premier Thaksin capitalized on the situation, turning what we call the disaster into the opportunity by showing decisiveness."

Mr. Broadfoot says the prime minister's performance also changed his image among political analysts around the region. "For a long time now we've been so critical of his playing a CEO-style leadership," he added. "But when it came to dealing with this crisis, that was the kind of leadership Thailand needed."

Mr. Thaksin had been facing criticism for his handling of Muslim separatist violence in the southern provinces and the bird flu outbreak last year, and also for what many in the middle class consider his autocratic style of leadership.

There are concerns that the disaster has cut off political debate. Newspapers and television programs that would normally have been filled with election commentary are instead reporting on the tragedy.

Even though Thai Rak Thai's popularity had weakened before the disaster, it still was the favorite to win the election. Mr. Broadfoot says the prime minister's enhanced image means that victory is now all but assured. "He's going to get that vote on the basis of what's happened - on the basis of how he's rallied the country for the disaster," he said. "He's going to score a really big victory in this election - I don't think there's any doubt there."

The business newspaper Krungthep Thurakit has forecast that Thai Rak Thai will capture 314 seats in the 500-member parliament.
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