" Hes the Berlusconi of Thailand," quipped Geoffrey, an elderly British resident of Bangkok, comparing the Thai prime minister to his counterpart in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.

"Youve got to love or hate the Thaksin and a lot of people cant stand him," explained Geoffrey, a slim black-suited patrician figure with long white hair, in the freezing air-conditioning of a Bangkok Irish pub.

"But youve got to hand it to him, he's performed magnificently in this terrible business and its going to stand him in pretty good stead."

He meant that Thaksin Shinawatra Sinawara, leader of one of Thailands four main political parties in the election on 6 February was - Geoffrey supposed - one of the few politicians in Asia whose reputation had soared like a phoenix from the destructive horror of the December tsunami.

It was an impression reiterated days later by Thailands main editorial writers and echoed in the same pub after the talk with savvy Geoffrey by a passionate 50-year-old Thai with wobbly English.

"Hes now certain to win the elections hands down," he predicted. "He's the best politician weve had. He's the only one whos bothered about improving the lot of ordinary people," he added, doubtless exemplifying the extremes of opinion generated by Thaksin, whose fortunes before the tsunami - which killed more than 5,000 people in the south of Thailand - had apparently waned seriously. "He went down there immediately himself doing his best to help," said his admirer.

The deputy chief-editor of the English language Bangkok Post still later wrote in the paper: I am not a great admirer of Mr Thaksin (but he) deserves credit for his quick response to the disaster, his decisive leadership and his skills in crisis management. He pulled the country out of a crisis while other countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka - where the death toll now stands at 30,000 with 6,000 still missing - were still locked in shock. It seems only a miracle can turn the tsunami tide which is now clearly in favour of Mr Thaksin.

He was reported to have made inroads into the six stricken southern provinces, seen as the political backyard of the main opposition party, namely the Democrats, the other two chief parties being Chart Thai (CT) and Mahachon (MCP).

Victory for the premier was also forecast in an editorial in the Thai paper, Khoa Sod, which wrote of his prompt and effective action to alleviate plight. It added: We hope he wont be as arrogant as in the past.

His critics, though, have not fallen silent. Among the latest were two university professors who told a seminar that his repressive policies went beyond even the capabilities of the notorious dictator, the former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.

And a Dutch bar-owner on one of Thailand's many islands said he resented the man (the prime minister) as a conservative who had done thousands and thousands of bar-girls and sex-workers out of their livelihood by bringing forward the closing time for bars and night-clubs to 1.00 - when they used to stay open until all hours. The bar-owner claimed Thaksin had done it to protect Thailand's youth from corruption.

The prime minister the other day repeated before parliament that Thailand would refuse financial aid from abroad. He explained: "We want equal status with other countries on the international political stage. Our credibility will be downgraded if we beg for help from everyone."