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Turbulent Thailand

Thai junta steps into unfamiliar terrain ahead of first electoral test

PM Prayuth faces challenge as voter sentiment seen leaning toward pro-democracy camp

BANGKOK -- Thailand's military leaders are stepping into an unfamiliar political ring at the tail end of their more than four-and-a-half-year grip on power, as they face the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics to try to secure votes for a pro-junta party in the February general election.

Early signs suggest the generals face a formidable challenge on the road to the polls, which will be framed as a contest between political parties representing the country's pro-democracy camp against the largely ultra-conservative, anti-democratic camp -- the junta's allies.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta's head, has emerged as the lightning rod in this electoral climate. A politically untested Prayuth was the former army chief who led the military in a 2014 coup to topple the country's last elected government. His junta has been in power longer than the usual, four-year-life span that has characterized Thailand's elected governments since the 1970s.

In a bid to woo voters at the polls and remain in power, Prayuth is closing ranks with the Palang Pracharath Party, a newly-formed pro-junta party. The PPP needs to win at least 126 of the 500 seats up for grabs in the lower house in order to nominate Prayuth for the prime minister's post.

But playing the numbers game to form a minority government could prove daunting, according to some observers. After all, Prayuth is in a face-off with political veterans who have years of experience on the election campaign trail. They include former parliamentarians from the country's two largest political parties, the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrat Party, and smaller parties also led by seasoned political hands.

Pheu Thai is the political vehicle of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the country's most popular, yet polarizing political leader. He has formed a string of parties, which have won all the general elections since 2001. But Thaksin's elected government was ousted in a 2006 coup, as was the elected government headed by his youngest sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in the 2014 coup that Prayuth staged. The deposed siblings both fled court cases and live in exile.

As he courts voters on his campaign forays, Prayuth appears wooden, lacking the common touch and the political nous of the Shinawatras. And he is getting testy in his new role. The short-tempered general, who was hostile to politicians after he grabbed power, before more lately trying to become one of them, has been barking at his critics who have been emboldened since the junta relaxed laws against political activity.

Such friction is being stoked by what is so far a one-sided election campaign. Prayuth has already begun using the advantage of incumbency to roll out billions of baht-worth in handouts to millions of rural and urban poor -- a populist measure that the junta's election rules have outlawed for other political parties contesting the polls.

His confidants within the regime say his political ambition is geared towards ushering in a new political era for Thailand. "For his political support and survival, he has to rely on certain political heavyweights from parties who have contested in elections before," one well-placed junta insider told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He is hoping to end the cycle of elections and coups."

But political insiders say surveys of voter sentiment project Pheu Thai and smaller parties allied to its pro-democracy cause to carve out the largest number of seats -- around 250. They expect the Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest party, to end up a distant second, with more than 100 seats. The remaining seats will be what Prayuth's PPP and scores of other newly-formed, smaller political parties will be vying for.

The forecasts reflect a similar pulse taken earlier this year by internal surveys of political parties and the country's military intelligence arm. But the coup-installed regime has a backstop to bolster Prayuth's ambition: under Thailand's new election rules, written by the junta's allies, a preferred outcome has been crafted to favor a pro-junta candidate as head of the next government. The chosen candidate will be buoyed by the junta's 250 handpicked senators in the upper house -- dubbed the "military party" by some officials at the defense ministry -- who will weigh in on the choice of the premier.

The PPP's leaders expect the endorsement of the 250 senators and 126 seats in the lower house to secure the 376 majority threshold for both houses to win the premier stakes. The PPP is staking its ambition on rural politicians from provincial clans that it has poached from exiting political parties -- including some tempted with millions of baht to cross over.

Not surprisingly, the fear that Prayuth and his junta allies may steal a march over their opponents through a "fixed election" has sparked anti-junta sniping. Claims have been leveled by respected Thai academics and media commentators that the junta is trying to rig the elections by manipulating a further slew of poll regulations to favor Prayuth.

Thirayuth Boonmee, a respected scholar and former student leader from the early 1970s who led a pro-democracy protest movement that brought down a military regime, has fired a salvo. "I'd like to appeal to Gen. Prayuth ... to prevent all sides from using legal manipulation or any other means to the point that there are accusations of a dirty election," he told journalists this month.

There are other advantages that could tilt the political field in Prayuth's favor. Human rights groups accuse the regime of keeping in place military edicts that gag political parties from criticizing the regime. The junta is also being pilloried for leaning on the supposedly independent Elections Commission to hobble the election campaigns of the anti-junta parties.

The junta's heavy hand would undermine the legitimacy of the elections, warns the Eurasia Group, an international political risk consultancy. "Direct tampering of this nature will make it easier for Pheu Thai and others to cry foul, increasing the risk of public backlash against the entire election process," it observed in a note on the Thai elections this month.

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