CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- The popularity of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is believed to be surging ahead of Thailand's general election expected by May, even in the traditional rural strongholds of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Despite pushing policies criticized for their undisguised appeal to populism, Prayuth's moves since assuming his post in 2014 seem to be paying off.
During what cabinet members refer to as "mobile cabinet" meetings held recently in Chiang Mai and Lampang -- both northern cities where support for Thaksin remains strong -- about 300 villagers waited for more than three hours to greet Prayuth.
Sunee Phuangkam, a 52-year-old farmer in Lampang Province, said she wanted to see the prime minister as she approved of his monthly allowances to the region's elderly, one of Prayuth's populist ploys introduced last year. "He is a good person and I like his policies," she said.
After revealing his interest last year to remain in politics, Prayuth -- the former general who led the 2014 coup that installed him as prime minister -- has been holding weekly cabinet meetings in rural areas rather than Bangkok.
Prayuth said this allows him to meet with locals to hear their grievances. Critics maintain, however, that the meetings are just a way for the prime minister to woo votes by touting his populist policies, such as cash handouts.
A 64-year-old Chiang Mai street vendor seems persuaded. "I'm a black sheep in Chiang Mai as I never supported Thaksin or [parties affiliated with him]," she said, adding that she voted for the Democrat Party during the last election. "But this time I may support Prayuth because I want the country to be peaceful," she said, referring to how the military stepped in and stopped the political turmoil in 2014.
Her comment would have been nearly unthinkable several years ago in Thaksin's domain, where more than 80% of voters remain loyal to him and his Pheu Thai Party. Some told the Nikkei Asian Review that they will still vote for Pheu Thai, as they hate the junta.
"The junta staged the coup that dragged the economy down," said a taxi driver.
Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, also once prime minister, supported farmers with generous subsidies while in power, which guaranteed a measure of loyalty
"There are a certain group of people who still love Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party in some areas," said faculty member Jade Donavanik of Dhurakij Pundit University in Bangkok. "However, there are also some major changes in Chiang Mai."
A poll conducted by the university in June 2018 showed that 29% of Thais want Prayuth to remain as prime minister. This slipped to 27% in the latest poll in November, but still indicates solid support for the former general, in stark contrast to rival Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of Pheu Thai. Sudarat had been polling at about 26% in June, but has since plunged to 18%.
The somewhat politically untested Prayuth has become the big question in the runup to the election. Although he has not formally declared his candidacy, four ministers in his current government have set up the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, or PPP. The party, led by Industry Minister Uttama Savanayama, have vowed to keep Prayuth as prime minister should they hold power.
The PPP needs to win at least 126 of the 500 seats in the lower house in order to nominate Prayuth for the post. But even if they manage to lure voters away from Pheu Thai, problems remain.
The first is confusion among Prayuth supporters about which party to vote for, since Prayuth has yet to formally join the PPP despite the party's unflinching support.
"I really don't know which party I should vote for to bring him back [as prime minister]," said Yodkam Yongta, a 64-year-old vegetable vendor.
This is partly due to the complicated rules and regulations of the new constitution, hurdles that could hinder Prayuth-aligned parties from gaining votes.
The previous constitution allowed Thaksin-led parties and the rival Democrat Party to dominate parliament, resulting in serious clashes that often paralyzed the country, both politically and economically. The current constitution is designed to prevent the two factions from wielding too much power, encouraging smaller political groups to set up their own parties and setting the stage for a coalition government.
Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party is keenly aware of this and has launched affiliate party Thai Raksa Chart, which looks to attract younger voters who grew disenchanted with Pheu Thai and left. After the elections, Pheu Thai hopes to cobble enough votes together from Thai Raksa and other splinter parties to form a ruling coalition.
There are now about 100 active parties ahead of the election. Of these, 36 are new and want to have their voices heard.
The vastly changed political landscape could hinder the PPP in its quest to maintain the status quo. What has been widely viewed as a three-horse race between the PPP, pro-Thaksin parties and the Democrat Party may turn into a less strictly defined contest as voters now have many choices -- not the least voters in Thaksin territory. Adding to the uncertainty is that Prayuth has still not said which party he will stand for.
As Prapin Sriwichai, a Chiang Mai dessert vendor observed: "I have realized which parties have done good and bad things to the country. I will vote for the party which can bring peace to the country."