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Abhisit, Chuan's young protege gets his turn at last

As a protege of former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, Abhisit Vejjajiva learnt many valuable lessons about politics knowing that one day he could also be national leader.

"Chuan is my teacher of politics. I learnt a lot from him including patience inevitable for political work, determination and firmness in my belief, being myself," the Democrat leader once said.

Abhisit wanted to be a politician since he was 10. He said the October 14, 1973 uprising was the main motive. And Chuan, from the country's oldest party, opened the door for him.

He first ran for election in 1992, when he became the Democrat's only Bangkok MP. He was a government spokesman at the age of 27.

In 1997, Abhisit was a PM's Office Minister handling education reform, bureaucratic reform. He created mechanisms for anti-corruption policies for Chuan's government.

He was also an assistant of Chuan when the latter was education minister. Privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda was the prime minister at that time.

Yesterday was the fourth time this year that Abhisit had been nominated to be PM and his first success. He is set to become Thailand's 27th prime minister at the age of 44.

It is eight years since the Democrats have held power, and Abhisit has led the party for almost four years.

His victory comes with the hope that, as a fresh "clean" face, he may be able to end the bitter divisive conflicts that have wracked national politics in recent years. The public has grown increasingly tired with anti- and pro-government protests that have hurt them financially by eroding the economy and tourism.

But the challenge now is whether Abhisit can heal the urban and rural tensions aggravated by recent protests. Will he be able to show a common touch and get close to grassroots people in areas upcountry?

There is uncertainty also about his ability to manage veteran politicians from minor parties - some who were previously rivals - in his coalition government.

The People's Alliance for Democracy protested against the Thaksin Shinawatra government, and later regimes he was seen as backing. The now defunct Thai Rak Thai Party government received strong support from grassroots voters in the North and Northeast. Populist policies and Thaksin's down-to-earth, charismatic character were a part of that.

Thaksin visited people in the country, sat and talked to villagers, hugged them and presented poverty reduction plans on television.

In the lead-up to the election last year, Abhisit had a brief mission to visit people in the provinces and joined a media programme around the clock to demonstrate he was reachable and people could contact him at any time.

But he still lost to People Power Party's Samak Sundaravej - Thaksin's successor. The 73-year-old Samak called Abhisit an "unripe mango", slurring his young rival as too young to lead the country.

However, Abhisit won't be Thailand's youngest prime minister. MR Seni Pramoj was 40 years old when he took the top job, and Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram was 41 when he became PM.

Abhisit, whose parents were doctors, was educated mostly in the United Kingdom. He transferred to Scaitclife School and Eton College after attending Chulalongkorn University Demonstration School in Thailand. He enrolled at Oxford University, where he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (as did former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj and Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi).

While his rivals have accused him of being a deserter who avoided conscription, Abhisit taught briefly at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy before returning to Oxford to pursue a Master's degree in Economics. He then became a lecturer in economics at Thammasat University before entering politics 16 years ago.

As well as being premier, Abhisit is expected to be minister of education. He has been a Shadow Education Minister and promoted the importance of basic education.

Abhisit also stresses the importance of family. His wife Pimpen is a lecturer at Chulalongkorn. The couple has two children, Prang and Punnasit, whom he drives to school in the morning.

Abhisit took important roles in no-confidence debates that toppled Banharn Silapa-Archa in the mid-90s. He also scrutinised the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government's controversial economic policies. However, Abhisit felt his best parliamentary achievement was during the no-confidence debate on the scandal over bomb scanners purchased by the Thaksin government for Suvarnabhumi airport.

Abhisit and the Democrat Party have been criticised as being backed by the military. They have also been criticised as beneficiaries from the coup and protests against its main opponent, the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party.

But now he has the chance to revive national unity, the economy and Thailand's international reputation, and show what he can do.

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