As the political temperature nudged higher in Bangkok last week over revelations of government cronyism, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra adopted what for him is a novel strategy. He kept quiet. The reason, he told reporters, was in the heavens. Mercury was positioned close to his star and it was an unfavourable period for him, which meant no more press conferences until the end of the year. For a man whose four years at the helm have been punctuated by a constant flow of ideas, policies, opinions and invective, it was an uncharacteristic show of verbal restraint. Even those inclined to follow the advice of astrologers were left wondering if Mr Thaksin, the chief executive-style leader who turned a business fortune into political triumph, was running out of steam. A string of policy setbacks, security failures and government scandals have raised the question of his political longevity at a time when economic growth, his prime calling-card, is starting to flag. Last month, a court blocked the privatisation of state electricity company Egat, dealing a blow to government plans to raise money for a US$41 billion infrastructure expansion. Add to that a public spat with Sondhi Limthongkul, an outspoken publisher who has become a lightning rod for public disenchantment, and it starts to look like a case of second-term blues. Just as US President George W. Bush has seen his popularity wane after re-election, Mr Thaksin has run into rising public doubts over his credibility. In dealing with the bloody insurgency in Muslim-dominated southern provinces he has frequently resorted to the take-no-prisoners rhetoric of the US president over the war in Iraq. Those who are not with him, are said to be against him. He views even the shadowy gunmen of the south, who revived a decades-old cry for independence, as plotters ready to bring him down. Back in February, it was a different story. Having already scored a first in Thailand's fractious political history by completing a term in elected office, Mr Thaksin led his Thai Rak Thai party to a stunning victory. The opposition crumbled as its slurs against Mr Thaksin - his bullying tactics, cronyism and corruption - failed to sway a public enamoured by a can-do prime minister with a treasure trove of goodies. Thai Rak Thai romped home with 377 out of 500 seats in parliament. Rural Thailand had decided it liked a leader who froze farmers debts, lent billions of baht to villages and provided subsidised health care. Thailand woke up to another political first: a single-party government. That might sound like a recipe for stability in a country that has lurched from coup to crisis and back again. But with Mr Thaksin - a man who has muzzled the press and virtually erased the lines between family, business and politics - as the anchor in the storm, alarm bells began to ring. Born into a prominent ethnic Chinese family in Chiang Mai in 1949, Mr Thaksin rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the police force. In 1981, he began leasing computers to government offices, which later morphed into a telecommunications contract. He resigned from the police in 1987 and began building a business empire that became Shin Corp. The company now has interests in property, airlines, satellites, entertainment and finance, and Thailand's top mobile-phone company, AIS. Mr Thaksin's personal fortune was estimated last year at US$1.2 billion, making him the third-richest man in Thailand. His initial forays into politics in the mid-1990s were far from spectacular. But the economic crisis of 1997-98 created an opening that Mr Thaksin was quick to exploit with a new party: Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). Its slogan was simply and effective: 'Think new, act new, for every Thai.' Backed by his massive personal wealth and business assets, Thai Rak Thai scored a stunning victory in January 2001. The Democrat Party, the country's oldest political party, floundered as voters blamed it for the economic crisis and small parties jumped onto the Thaksin bandwagon. There was one small problem: Mr Thaksin had been caught hiding his assets from state regulators. Under the 1997 constitution, he faced a five-year ban on holding political office. But in a controversial ruling that set the tone for Mr Thaksin's premiership, the Constitutional Court decided not to punish the incumbent leader. By doing so, the court appeared to accept his argument that 11 million voters had already judged him. To his critics, this determination to steamroll over independent bodies set up to check the executive was precisely why Mr Thaksin's brand of populist democracy is anything but benign. After his landslide re-election, their voices bubbled to the surface. Academics, former political allies and civil society leaders lined up to warn of the dangers of one-party rule. Mr Thaksin struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone. 'Four years from now my critics ... will know me better,' he said. 'I'm willing to open myself up to criticism. The race is over. It's time we turned to each other and started working together.' But this invitation has come back to haunt Mr Thaksin's second term in office, as the marketing sheen of his policies has worn thinner. Far from working with his opponents, though, he has tried to silence critical voices. Media outlets that refuse to play ball have faced hostile takeover bids, criminal lawsuits and outright bans. Mr Thaksin's confrontational style has silenced some opponents, but for Mr Sondhi, the publisher and tycoon, it has proven to be a powerful motivator. In recent months, Mr Sondhi, a former Thaksin ally who owns newspapers, magazines and cable-television channels, has emerged as a thorn in the prime minister's side, one that might yet do some lasting damage. In September, state-run television abruptly cancelled a talk-show he co-hosted after he made a number of stinging allegations against Mr Thaksin. The most damaging is the controversial claim that the premier is usurping the powers of the monarchy and the Buddhist clergy. Mr Thaksin responded by suing Mr Sondhi, his co-host and his media group for criminal libel, and sought a court order to stop the criticism. A court later overturned the injunction, giving more ammunition to Mr Sondhi's campaign. Denied his television slot, Mr Sondhi has staged his talk-show in Bangkok's Lumpini Park, appearing live and via video link-up. He has spiced up his offering with more tales of corruption, including the allegation that Mr Thaksin's younger sister commandeered an air-force plane to take her friends to a birthday party. Shin Corp is a part-owner of the Thai operation of AirAsia, the low-cost airline. Now, say wags, here comes the 'no-cost' airline. Tens of thousands of Thais have attended the events, and many have bought Mr Sondhi's T-shirts in royalist yellow with the provocative slogan, 'I fight for my king'. Mr Thaksin, while keeping a lid on his press appearances, has insisted that he will serve out his second term and has the backing of the people, but he has avoided a direct rebuttal of Mr Sondhi. For his part, Mr Sondhi has called for half a million Thais to attend his next scheduled outdoor show next Friday, setting the stage for a show of strength in the feud. Who gets the last word is an open question.