Seven years as a beauty salon boss in a working-class district of Bangkok has schooled 34-year-old Thanakit Somwong in the art of keeping his customers happy. These days, that means biting his tongue when the conversation turns, as it so often does, to the political turmoil gripping his country. With his bookings down in a rapidly cooling economy, Mr Thanakit is anxious not to upset anyone in his salon. 'I have to be neutral, to not take any position. I just listen to their opinions,' he said. After months of rowdy street protests, tit-for-tat violence and relentless partisanship by rival camps, Thailand is feeling the strain. At cafes and in offices, and among families and friends, tongues are sharper and less forgiving. A nation that prizes unity and harmony is splintering along social, economic and regional fault lines, driven by a bare-knuckles fight for political power. Like many Thais with humble roots, Mr Thanakit, the son of farmers, has a sneaking admiration for Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications tycoon turned prime minister who was deposed by a coup in 2006. Out of earshot of his customers, he is full of praise for the exiled former leader. During Thaksin's five years in office, life in Mr Thanakit's hometown in the barren northeast improved, with new roads and higher crop prices, and voters loved it. 'Nobody is perfect, but he worked hard. He worked for his country,' he said. This populist formula made Thaksin the most powerful politician in a generation and a threat to Bangkok's royalist elites who have long held sway over the nation. The battle between the two camps heated up this year after the military reluctantly handed power back to a pro-Thaksin government. It reached a crescendo last month with the seizure of Bangkok's airports by royalist protest group, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). A court-ordered dissolution of the three-party governing coalition paved the way for parliament to elect Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, as the new prime minister on December 15. Mr Abhisit, a British-educated career politician, is a flag bearer for the Bangkok establishment. He enjoys little support in the rural heartland, where Thaksin built his electoral machine, and is seen as aloof by ordinary Thais. The gap between town and country has been stretched in recent months by the campaign of the PAD. Despite its name, the group, which draws its support from Bangkok and southern Thailand, is hostile to one-person, one-vote democracy. Its aim is to dismantle Thaksin's electoral base and curb the power of elected officials. BMW-driving PAD supporters dismiss rural voters as simpletons who can't be trusted to choose a government. They point to the recent court verdict that disbanded the People Power Party (PPP) for vote buying in last year's parliamentary election. Puttachai Rattanalangkan, a US-educated engineer, joined the PAD to fight against corrupt politicians. Chief among his targets is Thaksin, who is living in exile and has been convicted in absentia of abusing his power during his tenure. Like many PAD activists, when he isn't attending meetings or rallies, he is glued to ASTV, a satellite channel owned by Sondhi Limthongkul, a PAD leader. In recent months, Mr Puttachai, 33, has stopped talking politics with his father, a Thaksin supporter, after several heated rows. His mother, however, has come over to his side after watching months of ASTV, joining his sister who also favours the PAD. He said he had not given up on converting his father to the cause, but admitted that it was a source of tension at home. He blames the media for distorting 'the truth'. 'I think the reason we're so divided is that there are two kinds of people. One group of people doesn't know the truth. It's a matter of media,' he said. Among those media is a 24-hour FM station run by and for Bangkok's taxi drivers. Into the small hours, it hosts phone-ins by disgruntled drivers who rail against the PAD and its backers, often veering into inflammatory rhetoric and dire warnings of civil conflict. Radio presenters also discuss the day's news, offer traffic updates and play songs for light relief. Sanong Karaket, the station's vice-director, said the PAD's closure of the airports had decimated the city's tourist industry, hitting taxi drivers hard. A sluggish economy also means fewer Thai passengers as Bangkok residents tighten their belts. That's a hard pill to swallow for taxi drivers. Many were loyal fans of Thaksin who reached out to them with specific policies, such as subsidised natural-gas refits for taxis and cheap loans that enabled drivers to buy their own vehicles. The station's pro-Thaksin stance has made it a target for violent attacks. On November 25, PAD militiamen shot and wounded several taxi drivers who had hurled rocks at their convoy, one of several armed clashes in recent months. Television footage aired by a government station showed PAD gunmen firing across a deserted main road, as a guard held aloft a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's revered monarch. Some drivers now refuse to pick up PAD supporters. During the airport occupation, some even vowed to take back the terminals by force if the security forces did not act, but Mr Sanong, 55, said that radio hosts talked them down. The PAD abandoned their protest on December 3 after the court ruling. 'We received a lot of angry phone calls from drivers who wanted to confront the PAD. But our announcers said 'don't go, we must keep it peaceful'. We want to stick to democratic ways,' he said. Whereas PAD supporters wear royalist yellow, which symbolises Monday, the day of the week on which King Bhumibol was born, the opposite camp are known as Red Shirts. This colour-coded conflict has sullied what had become a national fashion of wearing yellow on Mondays to pay tribute to King Bhumibol, who completed 60 years on the throne in June 2006. Even before the airport takeover, the number of people wearing yellow on Mondays had dwindled, because the colour is now associated with PAD mobs. Many analysts have painted the conflict as Bangkok versus upcountry voters. But Mr Sanong said that, if push came to shove, his side had the advantage, even in the capital. 'If we talk about the people who live and work in Bangkok, I can tell you that red shirts outnumber PAD supporters,' he said. That point was driven home on December 13 when over 40,000 red-shirted supporters packed into a stadium in Bangkok to watch a prerecorded video by Thaksin. PAD activists dismiss these gatherings as staged events by paid attendants, in contrast to their marathon protests that rely on volunteers. One of those volunteers is Parawisa Rungruangwiroj, 34, a bartender at a luxury hotel in Bangkok. She joined the PAD protests because she despises Thaksin and wants an overhaul of corrupt politics. But she admitted that the airport takeovers were probably a step too far. The impact has hit her in the pocket: she works a three-day week, down from six days, as there are so few customers at the bar. The tensions were all around, said Ms Parawisa, the daughter of a retired politician. 'People can't drink and talk politics now. They might fight. Thai people used to love each other,' she said. Some analysts say that the rise of Thaksin has torn up Thailand's old political playbook. The aspiration of rural and urban Thais to join the middle class made them fodder for his brash populism that delivered subsidised health care and other benefits. Taxi drivers fall into this category. Many return to their villages during harvest time but see their future in the cities. By delivering results to this emerging middle class, Thaksin could effectively ignore his opponents in Bangkok. Thailand's white-collar workforce - a wellspring of PAD activism - is only 15 per cent of the population, according to a 2004 government survey. Agrarian workers make up 41 per cent. But few politicians before Thaksin had tried to build up a mass support base across the country. This rural and urban voting bloc quickly became a threat to the middle class in Bangkok and other cities who felt bypassed by Thaksin's policies, said Nidhi Eoseewong, a retired historian in Chiang Mai. This drove them into the arms of royalist and military elites who feared a strongman leader would weaken their influence and who turned the PAD into a battering ram against the pro-Thaksin government. Despite the rhetoric about ridding the country of corruption, the PAD was more interested in protecting its turf, said Professor Nidhi. 'Middle-class Thais don't care too much about Thaksin's violation of democratic rights. What they care about is [diluting] the equal participation of rural people,' he said. That argument doesn't deter Mr Puttachai, the PAD activist. As a taxpayer, he believes he is entitled to a greater say than 'uneducated people' in how public funds are spent. 'I don't think [Thaksin] can run the country without our middle-class taxes,' he said.