To his detractors, Thaksin Shinawatra is a demagogue who thumbs his nose at democracy and the rule of law. To his supporters, he's a no- nonsense prime minister with a Midas touch who has put Thailand back on the map.
But both sides agree on one thing: Mr. Shinawatra is on course to become the first elected leader in Thai history to serve out his full term - and win a second in 2005. Secure at home, the former police colonel is starting to flex his muscle on the world stage.
Shinawatra has accrued thousands of air miles on high-profile visits to China and India, not to mention the US, Japan, and Indonesia. But his biggest moment comes as President Bush and other leaders congregate in Bangkok at the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) summit that concludes Tuesday.
Many observers say Thailand's leader is ready to fill a void left in Southeast Asia as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad steps down later this month. An outspoken critic of US intervention in Iraq, Mr. Mahathir is credited with transforming Malaysia into a stable, modern country during his 22-year tenure. But the leader's disparaging views of Western society and civil rights, and most recently, his acerbic comments about Jews, have made for a bumpy ride for non-Asian allies.
Shinawatra, by contrast, is more temperate. "[He] is proving himself to be the leader of the region," says Thitinan Pongsuhdirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "He stands for Asia, economic nationalism, and prosperity. Unlike Mahathir, he's not as antagonistic to the West; in fact, he's very close now to the US."
But Mr. Pongsuhdirak and other observers say Shinawatra's rise could prove a setback for democracy in Thailand, which has a long and often bloody history of strongman rule. They worry that Thailand may begin to emulate Malaysia and Singapore, whose leaders keep a tight leash on dissent and rarely deviate from single-party rule.
"When it comes to military dictatorships, people know how to fight. But now there is a new form of authoritarian rule that uses the parliamentary system," said Somchai Homlaor, a human rights activist who participated in a bloody 1973 uprising against military rule.
Shinawatra says such accusations ignore checks and balances in the Thai Constitution. "Don't worry that I can be a dictator; I can't," he told foreign journalists recently. "The system can't allow it."
Aides point out that the Constitution was rewritten in 1997 to promote stable governments over the whims of seat-swapping coalitions that dominated in the 1990s. Shinawatra says his popularity - his ratings are close to 70 percent - reflects Thailand's hankering for decisive leadership. "We don't have economy of scale, so we need economy of speed," he says.
A self-made millionaire whose family runs Thailand's largest mobile-phone company and its most-watched television channel, Shinawatra is much more than a political act. His daily public musings dominate local media. He has told his teenage daughter to work at McDonald's to set an example. Bookstores offer his preferred reading as recommended titles: "The New Law of Supply & Demand," and "The Responsibility Virus."
Shinawatra took office in 2001 amid allegations that he concealed his wealth from election watchdogs. Thailand's Constitutional Court - one of the new bodies set up in 1997 - narrowly acquitted him of the charges.
Since then, his government has introduced a raft of populist policies, including subsidized healthcare, a debt freeze for farmers, and loans for rural businesses. At the same time, an economy that hit the wall in 1997 has emerged as among the strongest in Asia, second only to China.
Shinawatra has consolidated his power base the old-fashioned way: through patronage and bargaining. He recently promoted his cousin to commander in chief of Thailand's Army.
And he raised the hackles of allies and rights groups when he launched an antidrug campaign earlier this year that left more than 2,000 suspects dead.
Thailand's humanrights commission is investigating dozens of cases where police are implicated in the killings, for which the government blamed rival drug dealers. Human rights lawyers say Shinawatra's insistence on setting targets for arrests encouraged poorly disciplined police officers to overreach.
Suranand Vejjajiva, a member of parliament and spokesman for Shinawatra's party, says the government has since tightened up monitors on police conduct, but says a strong response was necessary to reverse a flow of illegal drugs into Thailand. "There were abuses by the police," he says. "But only a few cases where the police have admitted shooting drug dealers."
Critics also accuse Shinawatra of undermining Thailand's vibrant political culture by restricting public debate. They point to the blacklisting of foreign activists coming to APEC, frequent tirades against antigovernment academics, and indirect pressure on local and foreign news media not to rock the boat.
Newspapers, such as the Nation, that are seen as overly critical have lost advertising from Shinawatra's companies and state-owned enterprises, which together account for the bulk of print advertising in Thailand.
"There is a clear attempt to silence critics and close down the dissenting space," argues Pongsudhirak. "We now have an aura of authoritarian rule."