Meet the new P.M. — same as the old P.M.?

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BANGKOK, Thailand – In the midst of the televised pomp surrounding Abhisit Vejjajiva’s December rise to the Thai prime minister’s seat, he held a brass ring before the crowds at his Democrat Party’s headquarters.

It was a gift from an upcountry grandmother named Niam, intended to “wed” the Oxford-educated leader to Thailand’s struggling northeast. Before putting away the ring, which the grandmother handed to him on a farm the previous year, the new leader promised to uplift rural Thais regardless of whether they support him.

This touch of political theater has turned Niam into Abhisit’s “Joe the Plumber,” the Ohioan singled out in the U.S. presidential campaign to personify America’s working class.  “Grandma Niam” — a kindly, leather-skinned 84-year-old matriarch from Ubon Ratchatani in the northeast borderlands — has come to symbolize Thailand’s rural class.

She is an unlikely supporter of the prime minister’s well-heeled Democrat Party. But without support from Thailand’s Niams, and those with Niams in their bloodline, Abhisit is unlikely to lead the kingdom for very long.

The fault lines of Thailand’s culture war lie between urban Bangkok and Isaan, the sprawling northeastern agricultural heartland. Abhisit, 44, posh and sprung from wealthy beginnings, is a hard sell to many rural Thais. Their contempt for Democrats like Abhisit is strong, tied to a poisonous narrative that the party stocked with old-money elites who dismiss upcountry Thais as hicks too uneducated to vote.

But this decade’s round of Thai politics has proven that upcountry support is vital to controlling the kingdom. The region, home to roughly one-third of all Thais, idled on the political backburner for years. But in 2001, now-deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra unlocked Isaan’s voting power by promising a slew of populist measures: micro-loans for farmers and shopkeepers, a $1-per-visit healthcare program, scholarships, paved roads and more.

His approach was derided by Democrats as reckless pandering and vote-buying. His opponents can point to a damning litany of human rights offenses and backdoor dealings. But Thaksin, living in exile to escape fraud charges, remains a hero to many working-class Thais.

Even as Abhisit settles into his new position, Thaksin’s shadow looms over the new government. Outside of Niam, most upcountry Thais still regard Isaan as Thaksin country. And in early January, Abhisit cancelled a speech north of Bangkok after pro-Thaksin protesters threatened to shower him with feces and pig’s blood.

“When Thaksin was prime minister, everything was good,” said Sukhota Apiwa, a vendor from Lop Buri province. “Business was good. Working with the government was much faster. Life overall was much better.”

Thaksin is also the arch-nemesis of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the yellow-clad protest faction that seized Bangkok’s chief international airport in December. Though Abhisit has condemned the takeover, the protesters set the stage for his leadership.

Their protest movement helped paralyze the Thaksin-allied government, dissolve Thaksin’s proxy party and force out two Thaksin-allied prime ministers over corruption charges.

The resulting power vacuum sent many of Thaksin’s former friends fleeing to a makeshift coalition government headed by Democrats. Abhisit, handsome and bright, was quickly appointed as its leader.

“It is my every intention to restore the picture of Thailand that friends all over the world used to know,” Abhisit said after his appointment, which ended months of debilitating protests. “And I will do this through a grand plan of reconciliation.”

Now Abhisit has decided to overcome Thaksin nostalgia by adopting elements of the former leader’s approach. His cabinet has outlined a populist package that could include monthly allowances to the elderly, community loans and farming subsidies. These measures would be included in a roughly $8.6 billion plan to heal Thailand’s limping economy.

Perhaps Abhisit's best advice has come from political power broker and former Thaksin ally Newin Chidchob. As was widely reported in the Thai media, Chidchob told Abhisit, “If you were to dish 100 billion (of Thai currency) into Isaan, pretty soon the Isaan people would forget Thaksin.”

In addition to mending the Democrats’ poor image in Isaan, populist spending measures will provide cover for Thaksin-friendly politicians who switched sides, said Federico Ferrara, a Thai political observer and assistant political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

“These people can now go back to their districts and tell their constituents that though they might have betrayed Thaksin,” he said, “they did not betray the ideas that made Thaksin so popular in the provinces.”

“As for whether this will truly help ‘the people,’ the short answer is no,” Ferrara said. “The longer answer is that is was never really the point of populist policies to help the masses in substantive ways. The appearance of doing so is much more important.”