BANGKOK -- After pulling off Thailand's last coup in 2014 when he was army commander, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is in an altogether different place as drumbeats quicken for a putsch against his military-backed government.
With corpses lying in the streets of the capital, Thailand's rising political temperature is being fueled by outrage at the government's failure to contain the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By mid-July, as the economy continued to flounder, the possibility of a coup had moved from social media chatter to serious discussions in elite business circles.
Historically, coup rumors surface in Thailand when politics polarize and bog down. The current round illustrates how split the country remains on so many issues.
In the vanguard of those who believe another military junta would provide any kind of solution is the ultraconservative establishment, a constituency that has backed Prayuth since his 2014 power grab -- Thailand's 13th successful coup after it ostensibly became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. On average, there has been a coup nearly every seven years since.
"The calls for a coup first came from the right wing camp of Thai politics," Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank, told Nikkei Asia. "They feel that the country needs an absolute regime to clean up Thailand's health and political problems."
Observers in the opposite camp argue that this kind of thinking fostered both the 2006 and 2014 coups and has evidently failed. In February, it was taken to an extreme in Myanmar by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who in his hubris has effectively destroyed the country.
A coup might also not necessarily bring an end to Prayuth. In 1971, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn staged a so-called "self-coup" that enabled him to suspend parliament, shuffle his cabinet and remain as prime minister. Thanom's failure to deliver a workable constitution led to student-led political unrest, and ultimately in 1973 serious bloodshed.
Prayuth's 2014 coup toppled the elected caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who herself had already been removed from office by court order. The previous coup in 2006 overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother. Both now live in exile overseas.
Some analysts believe the likelihood of a coup in Thailand resembling anything that has gone before to be slim. There have been sweeping changes in the chain of command since King Maha Vajiralongkorn succeeded his father in October 2016. The current army commander, Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, also does not appear politically ambitious.
Following his accession, the king reassigned troops in Bangkok to expand the Royal Guard 904, an elite military unit under the king's direct command that has over 7,000 well-trained, combat-ready troops.
The redeployment involved the 11th Infantry Regiment, the 4th Cavalry Battalion and the 1st Infantry Regiment, units in the heart of the capital that had been used by previous army commanders -- including Prayuth in 2014 -- to stage coups. These units make up part of Bangkok's security under the control of the Royal Guard.
Gen. Narongphan, unquestionably a palace loyalist, has opted for a quieter, background role in ensuring military support for Prayuth, particularly in regard to containing the spread of the pandemic.
When COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths soared in early July, Prayuth was supported with troops for 145 checkpoints around the country to enforce the latest lockdown measures. Military teams have also been deployed to conduct home visits to identify COVID-19 positive people in Bangkok and other hard-hit provinces.
Prayuth has also acquired his own political capital during the five years the military junta lasted and the two years since his pro-military party, Palang Pracharath, was elected to office in 2019.
"Prayuth is highly influential in his role as prime minister and, since 2019, as the defense minister," Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, told Nikkei. "Yet the military's backing for Prayuth is not a function of the depth of control by Prayuth over it."
Chambers echoes a view shared by well-placed political and military insiders that the army will throw its weight behind Prayuth as long as "the palace and conservative elements in Thai society support him" notwithstanding the public anger led by a small number of students calling for radical reforms.
"Though the army is highly factionalized, it will only remove its support for Prayuth if the palace tires of him," said Chambers.
Public discontent with Prayuth has risen since COVID-19 numbers started ticking up in April in a third wave. By July 28, daily infection rates had crossed 16,000 and 133 people were dead on just that day, according to the Public Health Ministry.
Thailand's vaccine rollout has been slow. Only 5% of the country have received two jabs of vaccine against the deadly pandemic. This has prompted some of Prayuth's erstwhile political allies -- minor royals, ultra-royalists and even traditionally conservative doctors -- to close ranks with their usual political opponents, including the anti-government youth groups demanding change.
The possibility of an orderly change of premier is also not helped by paralysis in the country's bicameral parliament. Under Thailand's 2017 constitution -- which was drafted by Prayuth appointees and approved in a controversial referendum where opposition campaigns were effectively silenced -- there is no mechanism for the 500 elected members of the lower house to choose an alternative prime minister on their own initiative, as there was in the previous two charters.
The 2017 charter, the country's 20th since 1932, was drafted to ensure a pro-royalist-military nominee like Prayuth could secure the premiership and retain it. Various clauses make it very hard to replace him through alliances shifting in the lower house. The kingmaking function is controlled by the 250-member, unelected senate, which votes as a block with parties in the lower house to achieve the needed overall majority. The senate has supported all of the coalition government's bills.
Based on electoral rules introduced during the Prayuth-led junta, there are only six names the parliament can choose to head a caretaker government until the next general election: Prayuth, as the nominee of Palang Pracharath; the nominees from Prayuth's coalition partners, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from the Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul from the Bhumjaithai party; and the three nominees from the opposition Pheu Thai Party, former cabinet ministers Chaikasem Nitsiri, Chadchart Sittipunt and Sudarat Keyuraphan.
Bangkok-based observers are taking stock of the political cul-de-sac that Prayuth's junta has created. "The threshold to change the prime minister here is very high, unlike in a normal functioning democracy, where you have an inbuilt system to self-regulate," a Western diplomat told Nikkei.
"Even the political parties who are part of the government coalition are in a difficulty because they have no power to choose a new prime minister," he said. "So you are stuck with the status quo and you have to wait for the system to explode."