RESIDENTS of Bangkok like to compare their dislike of former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to the hatred many Americans felt for Richard Nixon. But where the former United States president once said of the media in defeat that 'you won't have Nixon to kick around any more', General Chavalit proudly offers the reverse. 'Chavalit never changes,' he told the Sunday Morning Post this week to underline that he wanted to lead the country for a second time. 'You will see no changes in my opinions or my determination.' The leader of the opposition New Aspiration Party said he was ready to fight for the premiership again if Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's Democrats were forced into an election during the Year of the Rabbit. His superstitious wife has already started praying for his second chance. As unlikely as a comeback may seem, insiders stress that the former army chief cannot be discounted given the fragile nature of Thailand's coalition politics and General Chavalit's prodigious deal-making skills and rural contacts. He had kept a relatively low profile in the opposition until the recent ill-fated censure motion against the Government brought him back to centre stage. And, as usual, General Chavalit found the public telling pollsters he was the worst orator and the Democrats turning his attack back on him. However, rhino-hide General Chavalit probably has the thickest skin of any politician in the region. Fifteen months ago, as the baht plunged and Thailand lurched into its worst economic crisis in decades, General Chavalit resigned amid a storm of criticism considered extreme even by the vituperative standards of the Bangkok press. Commentators openly speculated that he had Alzheimer's disease and cartoonists depicted him as a steaming dung heap in a suit, a thick-lipped rural buffoon and a mafia boss sitting on a raft of skulls. Newspapers still routinely refer to him in headlines by derogatory nicknames. When asked whether he was ready to endure such punishment again, General Chavalit said he had long learned to ignore criticism: 'All these people . . . I can look through them to the background,' he says. 'For a long time they have been following my car, asking for favours. They are just little people in my view. I will never look down on them.' He prefers instead to narrow his small eyes and look into the middle distance at what he would do back in power. General Chavalit says Mr Chuan has failed to cure Thailand's ills and should quit, adding that the Prime Minister has not taken up his suggestion that he resign in favour of an apolitical 'national government'. 'He says he was worried about a dictatorship. I said to him, 'What you are doing now is worse than a dictatorship'. All the poor people are thinking the same way,' General Chavalit said. 'Up till now, no one can make them happy. They saw that I tried to help them. Their problems have to be the main objective, not the laws or procedures.' Thailand's populous northeast - home to one in three voters - remains a New Aspiration Party stronghold, and General Chavalit claims a strict new constitution that outlaws vote-buying will not dent his appeal. 'I keep telling my people . . . you have to work hard, listen to the people, stay with them, eat with them. Money means something but it is not the biggest thing,' he said. He speaks of the need to reposition Thailand to play up its strengths rather than rely on imported industrial technology purchased with borrowed money. 'We must exploit our advantages. I will try to come up with something to compete with Coca-Cola . . . like lychee juice,' he says with a chuckle. 'You can make Bangkok the centre of health care, the world centre of meditation, Thai boxing . . . it is all about services, tourism. It is the proper way of making money, not borrowing money and buying machines and getting people from outside to manage.' For General Chavalit it is all part of a 'broad and deep' 20-year vision that runs far beyond the nuances of the current debate over International Monetary Fund-led austerity and budget deficits. But at 66, is he the politician to carry it all out? 'I do 35 sit-ups a day,' he says. 'I can hit a golf ball 250 metres.'