General Prem Tinsulanonda is that most influential of leaders - the popular autocrat. General Prem's eight years of unelected rule is fondly remembered by many in Bangkok. He lifted a military-imposed curfew and press sanctions, sparked economic growth and paved the way for democracy. His leadership replaced a decade of instability and tighter military rule. It was marked early on by his victory in bringing to heel - by force and compromise - a 10,000-strong communist insurgency. The courting of General Prem to replace Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh when he retires tomorrow is a throwback to when Thai democracy was in its infancy, and military and bureaucratic elites ruled. At 77, General Prem is a lifelong bachelor who lives an outwardly austere life in the mould of those elites. Seen as an ultra-clean moderate, many in Bangkok put great faith in his ability to rule. He fought off an economic slump in 1984 and there were only two coup attempts during his tenure - the longest any Thai leader has served. His popularity is also grounded in good ties with King Bhumibol Adulyadej. After years out of the public eye, he shot to prominence a month ago by raising the prospect of an unelected national government to stop the economic rot. 'The country is sick and needs treatment,' he reportedly said. 'I would like you to consider if the current economic crisis was of the same magnitude during my time as prime minister.'