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Beneath Thailand's tumult, a rural-urban fault line

Lawmakers are to pick a new prime minister Monday – the third in four months, reflecting the country's polarized politics.

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"I think the reason we're so divided is that there are two kinds of people. One group of people doesn't know the truth. It's a matter of media," he says.

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Among those media is a 24-hour FM station run by and for Bangkok taxi drivers. Into the wee hours, it hosts phone-ins by disgruntled drivers who fume over the PAD's campaign against a government that many of them voted into office. In particular, the closure of the airports has decimated the city's tourist industry, and that hits taxi drivers hard, says Sanong Karaket, the station's vice director.

On Nov. 25, PAD militiamen shot and wounded several taxi drivers who had hurled rocks at their convoy, one of several armed clashes in recent months. Some taxi drivers now refuse to pick up yellow-shirt passengers.

Sanong says if push comes to shove, his side has the advantage: "If we talk about the people who live and work in Bangkok, I can tell you that red shirts outnumber PAD supporters."

More than 40,000 Thaksin supporters packed into a stadium Saturday to hear a defiant taped message by their exiled hero, adding to tensions on the eve of Monday's vote.

Many of the roughly 20,000 taxis in Bangkok are rented by the day. Some of their drivers return to their villages during harvest time, straddling the urban-rural divide. Just as in 1997, when Thailand's economy contracted amid a regional crisis, the current slowdown may push more back to the countryside.

The aspirations of taxi drivers to join the urban middle class made them fodder for the brash populism of Mr. Thaksin, a tycoon-turned-politician who led his party to election victories in 2001 and 2005 before being ousted by a military coup in 2006.

By delivering subsidized healthcare and other giveaways to Thailand's emerging middle class, Thaksin hit on a winning formula. By contrast, the white-collar workforce – a wellspring of PAD activism – is only 15 percent of the population, according to a 2004 government survey. Agrarian workers make up 41 percent.

This rural and urban voting bloc became a threat to the middle class in Bangkok and other cities who felt bypassed by Thaksin's policies, says Nidhi Eoseewong, a retired historian in Chiang Mai. This drove them into the arms of royalist and military elites who feared a strongman leader would weaken their influence.

"Middle-class Thais don't care too much about Thaksin's violation of democratic rights.... What they care about is [diluting] the equal participation of rural people," he says.

Mr. Puttachai, the PAD activist, argues that taxpayers are entitled to more say in how public funds are spent: "I don't think [Thaksin] can run the country without our middle-class taxes."

Thanakit Somwong, a beauty salon boss in a working-class district of Bangkok, offers guarded praise for Thaksin. During his five years in office, life in Mr. Thanakit's hometown in the hardscrabble northeast improved: new roads, crop-price subsidies.

"Nobody is perfect, but [Thaksin] worked hard, he worked for his country," he says.

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