BANGKOK -- Thailand's general election is now expected to be held in February next year, after being rescheduled several times. A key question is whether junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha will remain as prime minister, the post to which he was appointed after the May 2014 coup.
The retired General has so far remained equivocal about his intention to seek another term, but many believe he wants to continue in the role.
Less than a year before the planned election, a mood in support of reappointing the junta leader is growing. Several pro-military political parties, which officially express approval of Prayuth, have been launched recently. Some civilian cabinet members are also supporting his reappointment.
These backers apparently want to scale down powers returned to political parties and others who are enemies of the military junta, including groups in favor of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prayuth led the coup in May 2014 that kicked out the pro-Thaksin government at the time. In August of that year he was named as prime minister by a military-appointed national legislature.
Prayuth has now been in the post for nearly four years, making him the second-longest serving non-elected leader since the country recorded rapid economic growth in the 1980s. Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda is the country's prime minister, serving for eight years.
The Reform People Party, a new party set up by former senator Paiboon Nititawan, became the first political group to express support for Prayuth.
"Gen Prayuth has all the qualifications, competence and integrity. Up until now, there have been no corruption scandals involving him or his family members so he's our best choice," the Bangkok Post quoted Paiboon as saying. Paiboon was elected as leader of the new party earlier this month.
Several days earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, a civilian member of the cabinet in charge of economic policies, was reported as saying: "I support Prime Minister Prayuth. Why is that? Did we see disorder in years past? Do you want the country to return to that? If the country is peaceful, everything will be good."
There is speculation that either Somkid or Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, Somkid's right-hand man, could lead another pro-military party to directly push for the reappointment of Prayuth.
The prime minister earlier this month appointed the leader of the Palang Chon Party as adviser to the prime minister on political affairs. The leader's young brother was also named as an assistant to the tourism and sports minister. The party has a strong vote bank in Chonburi Province, southeast of Bangkok.
Political observers see these moves as part of the junta government's tactics to lure powerful politicians to their side, preparing for the election next year.
Talk about Prayuth's reappointment has emerged because the new constitution, which took effect in April last year, paved the way for a non-elected prime minister.
There are two ways for Prayuth to stay on as prime minister.
The first is to receive endorsement from a party. The constitution says political parties must name up to three candidates they support before the election. If the party wins a majority in the lower house, Prayuth is certain to continue as prime minister. Even if the party fails to command a majority, he can still become prime minister at the head of a coalition government.
The second way is to take advantage of exceptional rules which apply when coalition talks collapse. If no candidate wins a majority vote in the national assembly, the constitution allows for the choosing of a third person, who is not on the ballot, as prime minister. The person does not need to be a member of the national assembly. The junta seems to be carefully weighing these two options.
Why is the junta so keen on keeping Prayuth in power, despite the risk of turning back the clock 30 years on the country's democratization?
Osamu Akagi, professor emeritus at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies, thinks the move stems from a profound distrust of politicians and "a reluctance to entrust the government to self-interested politicians." The junta is especially loath to see Thaksin, who it calls "corrupt," and his supporters seize power.
Though weakened by the junta, Thaksin's Pheu Thai party is still expected to win the largest number of seats in the next general election. The junta hopes that pro-military members led by Prayuth in the lower house and junta-appointed members of the upper house will cooperate and marginalize Thaksin's party, making it the opposition.
Perhaps Prayuth and the junta are following the example of Prem, who was widely supported by the people as a clean leader. He ruled the country in the 1980s with both the backing of the military and a respect for parliamentary democracy, a style some called "semi-democracy."
Yet it is unclear how much support Prayuth will eventually garner. And things are not all going to plan. When allegations emerged late last year that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon held secret assets, Prayuth defended him, losing some of his own support. The public thought Prayuth was complacent, and some lost faith in the junta.
Thailand is one of the leading industrial countries in Southeast Asia, and hosts many foreign companies. Keiichiro Oizumi, senior economist at the Japan Research Institute, a private think tank, said: "Prayuth's reelection [as prime minister] would be positive for business activity in terms of the continuation of current economic policy including infrastructure development." But, he added, "companies must be aware of the risk that public opposition against [Prayuth's] reelection could lead to social unrest."
The junta continues to ban political activity by the country's people and restrict freedom of speech. If the ban is lifted -- which some expect as early as June -- debate over the pros and cons of the junta and of Thaksin's group will likely gain momentum.