BANGKOK -- Simmering tensions between Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand's powerful army chief, and leaders of pro-democracy parties hover over Sunday's elections. Seasoned observers fear the elections may be a prelude to Thailand's next coup, rather than a return to a semblance of democracy after nearly five years of military rule.
The anxiety stems from the possibility of election results not favoring Palang Pracharat, the junta's newly formed proxy party that has nominated incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as its prime ministerial candidate.
The hawkish Apirat has put Thai voters on notice about who the military will support after Sunday. During an unprecedented oath-taking ceremony in early March, where he led over 700 senior officers in honoring a Thai king from the last century at the army's headquarters, Apirat said the military will only back a government loyal to the monarchy.
The words followed a previous salvo that politicians should not step out of line after the elections.
Not surprisingly, Apirat's warnings have been echoed by political allies of Palang Pracharat. Some of these backers have taken to social media or delivered campaign speeches goading voters to back Palang Pracharat or its allies to avoid another coup.
"I think if the bogus pro-democracy faction wins the election, eventually there will be another coup," said Benya Nandakwang, a leader of an ultraconservative party. "Wanna see it?"
Benya's comments came in an online post that reflected sentiments shared by a clutch of parties aligning themselves with Prayuth.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the same party, threatened to stage protests in an upmarket shopping district of Bangkok if the pro-junta party loses. Suthep led ultra conservatives in street protests against then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's elected government in 2014, paving the way for the latest coup.
According to Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights watchdog, talk of another coup has grown in the two weeks ahead of the elections. "This is what is worrying," Sunai said, "given that there can be military intervention ... if the election outcome does not satisfy the junta and its political allies.
"It is a form of blackmail and [is] now becoming very obvious."
Apirat turned up the heat after some pro-democracy candidates began calling for military reform.
A recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights, a Paris-based watchdog, says 32 political parties, nearly 40% of all those contesting the elections, have been trying to woo voters by calling for the military's budget to be cut, military conscription to be ended and the military's command system to be restructured.
Thailand's defense budget reached 227 billion baht this year, up from 183 billion baht the year of Prayuth's putsch.
The money is going to a top-heavy military that has nearly 1,750 generals leading 350,000 troops. The U.S. military, by contrast, has 880 flag officers.
"Apirat could stage a coup after the election, ostensibly to quell demonstrators opposing the electoral outcome, but actually to preserve military privileges," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. "A coup by Apirat would of course fell Prayuth from power, making Apirat the 'new' Prayuth."
Former police chief Seripisut Temiyawet, leader of Seri Ruam, another newly formed party, has led the charge to reform the military. "I want to move military bases out of Bangkok and also want to change the system of military service conscription," he said. "The military is the problem in this country, and we need huge reform."
Security in Bangkok comes under Thailand's First Army region, which has key divisions, battalions and regiments that have played the lead role in staging coups. Moving the bases out of Bangkok would make it more difficult -- though not impossible -- to launch coups.
Seripisut's call has resonated with Pheu Thai, which headed Thailand's government in 2014 and remains the country's largest political party; the Democrats, who make up the country's oldest party; and with the Future Forward Party, a newly formed bloc.
Pheu Thai is the latest party formed by telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and is thus part of a lineage that has not lost an election since 2001. Thaksin, Yingluck's brother, was deposed by a coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term stemming from a corruption verdict.
Gregory Vincent Raymond, an Australian scholar, says Apirat may not be in the mood to discuss military reform. "At the moment, with the country so politically polarized, I do not think Apirat will be ready to listen to proposals about budget cuts," said Raymond, author of "Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation."
"There is a deep distrust between the military and politicians," Raymond added, "and if there is a likelihood of Pheu Thai forming the next government, that will only grow, making military reform difficult."
The fate of the politically influential Thai military, however, may lie in the hands of the country's over 50 million registered voters. Leelavadee Vajropala, a candidate for Pheu Thai in Bangkok's Dusit district, which is home to many military bases, says a large voter turnout may indicate that the public mood has shifted against the junta and military.
"If there is 70-80% voter turnout and most support anti-junta parties," she said, "it will be hard for the military to ignore and launch a coup."
Sunai of Human Rights Watch says the writing is on the wall and points to the unprecedented turnout on March 17, when nearly 87% of the 2.6 million voters who registered to cast early ballots showed up. Sunai said this "indicates a resistance to the military's designs."