Now that the country is heading towards an election, which is to take place on May 14, it seems the dictator vs democracy dichotomy has largely faded as most political parties are forced to focus on measures to tackle economic problems in order to boost their chance of winning in the polls.
The election date was set after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared a House dissolution last Monday -- a few days earlier than the cabinet expiry date on March 23. The House dissolution is basically for technical reasons -- to facilitate party switching for some politicians.
All through his term as premier, Gen Prayut and his clique employed several political tricks. In fact, with its razor-thin majority, there had been speculation from the beginning that his coalition government might not have completed the term. But it eventually did through the help of mechanisms installed under the junta-sponsored 2017 constitution -- the 250-strong Senate -- as well as independent agencies like the charter court and the Election Commission that booted its opponents out of the political arena.
In fact, the junta-turned-elected government is naturally Machiavellian. At every given chance, it made use of all tactics to maximise gains.
The best example is the previous election. Gen Prayut, as junta leader, undertook mobile cabinet meetings that enabled him to tacitly campaign ahead of the 2019 polls while other political parties had to stay put out of fear they might breach obscure elections rules.
Over the past four years, Gen Prayut's coalition government which includes several minnow parties, experienced a rocky relationship with some members, with backstabbing and various allegations. Despite tacit hostility, the Bhumjaithai and Democrats dared not abandon the coalition since serving as members of the government afforded them power, benefits and state budget -- all things they missed over the previous five years because of the 2014 coup -- for their political bases.
As we witnessed, every House censure was tainted with scandals, and the Prayut government basically survived political challenges through fierce bargaining with minnow parties. There emerged contentious terms like bananas (cash handouts or rewards to) and cobras (defectors from their own parties) as the coalition struggled for political survival.
Yet, with the changing political landscape, Gen Prayut's chances of returning to power in the next polls -- while possible, given support from the Senate -- are not solid. He is no longer a saviour or fresh alternative. His overstay, running the country for ten years since the 2014 coup, is causing people to look for change.
Lest we forget, when the country had the first post-coup election in 2019, the junta members transformed themselves into politicians, establishing the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which won victory through unjust rules and cunning tactics. Only a bizarre seat calculation system stopped Pheu Thai being named the winner, and in the end it was blocked from forming a government.
Over the past few years, street politics has intensified, with the rise of youth groups against the old powers. These young pro-democracy people launched audacious campaigns, calling for monarchy reform, which widened social and political polarisation. Gen Prayut took advantage of the situation, standing as a fierce guard for the high institution while state authorities adhered to heavy-handed measures to suppress the young dissidents.
But as previously mentioned, the political landscape has changed enormously while the Prayut regime has become palpably weak and tedious. It needs to be mentioned that his "brother-in-arms", Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit (Uncle Pom) Wongsuwon is going in a separate direction, managing to reinvent himself and engage with young voters. Gen Prawit has maintained his grip on the PPRP and emerged as a contender for the next political chapter. Pheu Thai, meanwhile, keeps bouncing back, if not stronger. Unlike the prime minister, Gen Prawit has a natural gift for self-reinvention -- to engage with democratic society and young voters.
Under such circumstances, Gen Prawit has highlighted his ability to foster "reconciliation". It is an open secret that he is ready for a marriage of convenience with Pheu Thai. More importantly, with his clout, Gen Prawit may be able to sway some of the 250 senators to vote for a premiership candidate from a coalition that might include Pheu Thai.
In order to ditch the Move Forward Party, curbing its chances of another political success like in the previous polls, the old powers colluded with Pheu Thai and reintroduced the two-ballot system, which could enable the latter to secure a big victory.
So far, the MFP is the only party that adheres to the principles of democratisation and comprehensive reform -- a stance that is deemed too dangerous in the eyes of the old powers.
Since the current political climate is far different from the 2019 election, Gen Prayut will sooner rather than later grapple with the reality that his strength as the leader of the right-wing conservative faction that benefited him during the post-coup election is no longer useful. Signs of change became evident when Chadchat Sitthipunt, a former Pheu Thai minister, won the Bangkok governor election by a landslide last year.
Gen Prayut has to swallow a bitter pill as he has to confront less favourable factors in his next political battle. To a certain extent, he is isolated by his brother-in-arms and also Bhumjaithai, which seems eager to shake hands with Pheu Thai. At the same time, Pheu Thai will not rule out ex-junta elements if it forms the next government. After all, the lines between democracy vs dictatorship disparity have blurred for the former enemies.
With the country experiencing lengthy economic hardship since the Covid-19 lockdown measures, all the parties are finding it necessary to flaunt populism, rolling out several attractive subsidy packages with the hope of wooing support from the voters.
At the end of the day, it's the people who are to decide for a better future.