Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in Paris on June 25, 2018. Photo: AFP/Eric Piermont
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in Paris on June 25, 2018. Photo: AFP/Eric Piermont

Ever since staging his 2014 democracy-suspending military coup, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has blamed the elected politicians he overthrew, sidelined and silenced for the country’s entrenched political problems.

That refrain, repeated for years now on his nationally televised weekly address, in public speeches and in media remarks, was previously conveyed to justify his anti-democratic putsch and political overhaul that guarantees a future overarching role for the military.

Now, as Thailand tentatively heads towards a democracy-restoring campaign season, Prayut is effectively running to maintain the premiership on the same message, with the paradoxical twist that Thai voters should now view him more as a politician than soldier.

While Thailand’s perennial political parties, including the coup-ousted Peua Thai and second-ranking Democrat parties, are still banned from political activities, military-aligned proxies are moving unimpeded to manufacture a Prayut win at the next polls, now tentatively set for May 2019.

In recent weeks, local media have been awash with reports that the newly formed, pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party has poached politicians from both Peua Thai and the Democrats, with some local papers suggesting that either party could collapse under the weight of the supposed defections.

Named after Prayut’s signature “Pracharat” reform program, Palang Pracharat leaders have openly said the party wants Prayut as its chief prime ministerial candidate. Political parties must put forward three premier candidates under new election laws. Prayut, who many earlier expected would vie for the premiership as an unaffiliated “outsider,” has not yet officially joined or endorsed the new party.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok, June 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Suchart Chanataramanee, the party’s co-founder and Prayut’s military academy classmate, has boldly predicted Palang Pracharat will win the next polls, though not with a majority. If no party wins an outright majority, the military-appointed Senate lends its vote to picking the next premier, a scenario that favors Prayut.

The question hanging over Thai politics now is whether the junta believes it is luring enough vote-winning politicians, as well as its own propaganda touting Prayut’s supposedly strong grass roots popularity, to finally hold long-delayed elections that most independent analysts believe it will resoundingly lose.

Reasons abound to doubt recent rosy pro-junta projections. Suan Dusit, a local pollster, showed in June that 55% of respondents saw Peua Thai as the country’s top party, with the Democrats at 34% and Palang Pracharat at a mere 17%. A National Institute of Development Administration survey in May also showed Peua Thai outpacing Palang Pracharat, though by a narrower 32% to 25% margin.

Polls conducted by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a military spy agency, have consistently shown that Peua Thai would resoundingly win new polls, a person familiar with the surveys told Asia Times. Those results haven’t changed even with Prayut’s recent populist-style forays upcountry, the same source says.

Recent Thai election history shows that upstart parties fare poorly at the polls without an established grass roots network. Independent analysts and diplomats believe the recent strong regional bias, where Peua Thai dominates the country’s north and northeastern regions, and the Democrats the south, will hold again at the next polls.

Peua Thai party supporters during an election campaign rally at Bangkok’s Rajamangala stadium, July 01, 2011. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Pongthep Thepkanchana, a deputy premier under the coup-toppled Peua Thai government and a top party stalwart, told Asia Times in an interview that local reports of mass defections from his party to Palang Pracharat have been greatly exaggerated.

Pongthep said only three Peua Thai politicians – all from northeastern Loei province – have officially defected to the military’s new proxy party. He also said the ex-politicians military proxies have reportedly conscripted to manufacture the defections, known locally as the Sam Mit, or three friends, have been out of politics for years and lack “pulling power.”

“It is quite obvious that the next election will be about the clash of two concepts: pro-military and pro-democracy,” said Pongthep, who claims his party’s popularity has grown since the coup because of the military regime’s repression and policies. “If they are so popular, why not hold the election now?”

The junta still has election escape routes, though fewer than previously with a constitutional requirement that polls must be held 150 days after the royal endorsement of two passed election-related organic laws, and arguably never more fraught as Thais have been led to believe that new elections are on the near-term horizon.

In June, on the eve of departing on a highly anticipated diplomatic tour of Europe, Prayut surprised many observers when he said elections should not be held until the royal coronation ceremony for new King Vajiralongorn Bodindradebayavarangkun is staged.

The monarch is currently considering the election laws, which if he deems require amendment could push back the electoral time table. Vajiralongkorn earlier required changes to royal-related provisions of a military devised constitution, which had been passed in a national referendum.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, October 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

It’s unclear if Vajiralongkorn or his royal household has a view on whether elections should be held before or after his official crowning, a gala event expected to draw fellow monarchs and global dignitaries that will take months to organize and rehearse.

There are also questions about whether Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time in Germany, would be able to sustain that residential arrangement abroad after his coronation as an official head of state, Bangkok-based diplomats say.

One official close to the premier says some in the junta remain reluctant to hold elections that could tilt towards instability while Thailand holds next year’s rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a statesman role Prayut would apparently relish as a prestigious capstone to his tenure.

The same official notes that the last time Thailand held the rotational position in 2009 Peua Thai-aligned anti-government protestors stormed the venue with world leaders in attendance, forcing many to escape by helicopter from rooftops before the meeting was officially concluded.

The chaotic scene marked a nadir in Thailand’s global standing, one that current leaders of the world’s only military junta-led government are keen not to repeat, particularly after recent diplomatic successes in re-engaging the West after years of post-coup isolation for their anti-democratic ways and means.

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