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Thai Prime Minister Counts on Rural Poor in April 2 Vote

Thousands of farmers from Thailand's poorest regions have come to Bangkok to provide support for besieged Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Thaksin has long wooed low income voters in villages and cities with populist policies and is counting to them to back his Thai Rak Thai Party in the April 2 election.

The sounds of northern Thai folk music entertain hundreds of villagers gathered at a park on the outskirts of Bangkok to support Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thousands of poorer farmers, predominantly from Thailand's poorest provinces in the north and northeast, last week traveled to the city as part of the "Caravan of the Poor." They have joined thousands of low income workers from Bangkok to urge people to vote for Mr. Thaksin in the April 2 general election.

The farmers and Mr. Thaksin's supporters from Bangkok are camped at the hastily set up the Village of the Poor People or "Baan Khun Jon."

Kanta Kaenboonjal, an organizer of the village, says many poor people in the provinces are grateful for the prime minister's policies.

Kanta, from the northeastern province of Buri Ram, says Mr. Thaksin's policies, such as low-cost health care and efforts to cut the drug trade have all been welcomed.

Mr. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) Party built a support base among the country's poor to win elections in 2001. Those voters then gave Mr. Thaksin a landslide victory in 2005, making him the first prime minister to be re-elected after serving a full term.

Among other initiatives, Mr. Thaksin's government has cut fees at public hospitals to just 75 cents, and has made it easier for farmers to borrow money to expand.

But Mr. Thaksin now faces a challenge from the country's urban middle class. For several months, his critics have campaigned to have him thrown out of office for abuse of power and corruption. They say his policies have favored his cronies and that he has tried to crack down on dissent by controlling the media. The campaign has grown in the past few months, with daily opposition rallies in Bangkok.

Thai Rak Thai responded with a massive rally in Bangkok in early March, gathering more than 100,000 people.

And at campaign stops across the country, Mr. Thaksin has reached out to his support base.

At rally after rally, Mr. Thaksin has called out to the audience to say if he should carry on as prime minister or quit. Invariably, the crowds respond with "Soon, soon," which means "carry on."

Thepchai Yong, a senior editor and a long-time political commentator for The Nation Media Group, says Mr. Thaksin tapped into poor communities, especially in the rural north, long overlooked by other politicians.

"Politicians in the past only paid lip service to helping the poor," said Thepchai Yong. "The Thai Rak Thai knew that this is one area they can really make an impact. And that's why you see a lot of people from the northeast, which is the poorest region in the country, coming in support of Thaksin."

Chris Baker, an author and business consultant on Thailand, says it is part of the paradox that surrounds Mr. Thaksin, a multi-millionaire businessman popular among the poor and working class.

"Yes, he does remain still very popular. Why? Because one he's done a lot of good things for the little people in Thailand," he explained. "He is seen by a lot of the little people in Thailand as being like their friend. He is a politician who is more real to them than the sort of stuffed characters they have had to deal with in the past. Therefore, they love him and they want him to stay."

But Mr. Baker says the government's control of many of the country's television and radio stations, and some publications, is troubling. He says that control means many people, especially in rural areas, may not have heard about the allegations of corruption surrounding the administration.

"His ability to control the media and use them fundamentally as propaganda arms of the government in the way totalitarian governments have used them in the past means the average person doesn't know what he's been doing," he added.

Polls published Wednesday in Bangkok show 46 percent of voters want Mr. Thaksin to stay in office, against 32 percent who want him to resign. While that is an erosion of his strong support in last year's election, the support numbers are enough to give Mr. Thaksin ammunition as he resists calls to quit.

The prime minister regularly says he will not quit because he has the backing of the 19 million voters who re-elected him last year.

At the Village of the Poor People, Noporat, 58, a housewife, is one of those supporters, and intends to vote for him again on April 2.

She says Mr. Thaksin is the first prime minister to care about the poor and she does not want him to step aside.