How do you follow the wealthiest, most charismatic figure on the Thai political stage? That is a question almost certainly going to vex whoever replaces Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, political insiders believe. As the spotlight turns on his successor, Mr Thaksin has moved to ensure he will stay in the background. While announcing he would step down once a new parliament convened, Mr Thaksin made it clear he intends to remain a member of parliament and head of the party. His hold over the Thai Rak Thai Party cannot be underestimated. He founded the movement in 1998, funding it with a personal war chest unheard of by even the cash-rich standards of traditional Thai politics. He swiftly built it into the first Thai political party in history to win a second term. A key to that success has been Thai Rak Thai's countryside support, particularly on the arid northeastern plains where a third of Thai voters live. Despite - or perhaps because of - his vast wealth, Mr Thaksin connected with the rural poor in a way even the opposition admits no prime minister has done before. He led a bloody crackdown against drug dealers that left more than 2,000 dead, many in extrajudicial killings. He also pumped tens of millions of budget funds into controversial village loan schemes. 'Mr Thaksin has connected personally with his support base,' one opposition source said last night. 'It is hard to see how any other party figure can do that.' Mr Thaksin refused to comment on a possible successor, but early speculation centres around the deputy prime ministers. Surakiart Surathithai has been mentioned - a former business executive, academic and foreign minister now concentrating on his high-profile bid to replace Kofi Annan as UN secretary general. Former business lecturer Somkid Jatusripitak, a founding member of Thai Rak Thai, is also being considered.