Regime lays plans for post-poll control
NCPO, led by former soldier-turned-politician Prayut, has been busy ensuring its success at the ballot box
If the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and its roadmap to restore democracy are to be believed, a general election will be held toward the end of this year or in early 2019 at the latest.
Whenever it goes ahead, late this year or next, the military-installed government will have remained in power longer than any elected government except one. Thaksin Shinawatra, under the 1997 "people's constitution" served from Feb 9, 2001, to Apri 5, 2006 - five years and 55 days, a record. He was elected twice, in 2001 and again in 2005 before being forced to step down.
If the election is held on Nov 25 as widely believed, the current regime under coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha will have been in office for four years six months and three days without any break.
Despite that, the NCPO appears unwilling to step aside because it has learned from the failure of previous military coups, in which the former coup-makers, who toppled the Thaksin government in September, 2006, later witnessed the Pheu Thai Party win a new election and take office again.
The only choice left for NCPO chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, as he sees it, is move forward and enter the political arena himself. He is ready to serve as prime minister after the next election, to be precise, becoming an outsider premier as is technically allowed under the new charter.
To achieve that goal, a new political party will have to be formed or a deal reached with any existing party to serve as a nominee party to support Gen Prayut.
Gen Prayut himself has recently begun to talk about this, and even appears to be warming to the idea, amid rumours that moves are afoot to form a military party.
"I've not thought about that just yet. There still is a full year to go. Why don't we just wait and see how the situation will turn out?" he said when asked about the matter.
Still, he later came up with another move, in which he raised six questions for the public to answer. The move was perceived as a bid to gauge public opinion as he sets about deciding whether to form a military party or pick a nominee one.
Gen Prayut's move prompted even the Democrat Party, which once supported the NCPO, and the Bhumjaithai Party, once seen as a potential nominee of the NCPO, to start criticising Gen Prayut and the NCPO for trying to hold on to power.
In response, Gen Prayut said: "I'm not an enemy or a competitor of any politician, political party or anyone else."
But rumours of behind-the-scenes attempts to form a military party continue to emerge. It could be small or medium-sized, observers say.
The names of military officials close to the NCPO and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, as well as those who were Gen Prayut's classmates in Class 12 at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS), continue to emerge as possible leading figures behind the move.
One rumour says Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who oversees the government's economic policy, will become leader of a new party that will support Gen Prayut to become the next prime minister.
Gen Chatchai Sarikulya, a close friend from Class 12 of the AFAPS who recently rose to the post of deputy prime minister, is also rumoured to be playing a key role.
Key people in place
The charter drafters have come up with a new charter and its organic laws regulating the election which will make it harder for the Pheu Thai Party to win a sweeping poll victory.
In addition, Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda are united in wanting to prevent Pheu Thai from winning sufficient seats to form a government.
They hope other parties will join hands to form the next government and invite Gen Prayut to become the outsider prime minister.
As interior minister, Gen Anupong has assumed authority over the past few years for transferring provincial governors and chiefs of district offices, while Gen Prawit, who is believed to have good relations with several political parties, will likely be the one who convinces politicians to defect to the military party.
The armed forces and other security agencies will also be deployed to achieve this goal.
The burden of helping a military party become a key party in the formation of the next government will, however, fall on the armed forces. They are no longer politically neutral these days, of course, with their leaders serving as members of the NCPO.
Army chief Chalermchai Sitthisad serves as the secretary-general of the NCPO and head of the NCPO's peace and order command that controls the entire military and police.
Assistant army commander Apirat Kongsompong, a close aide of Gen Prayut who serves also as a deputy chief of the NCPO's command, meanwhile, is expected to emerge as the new army chief in the military reshuffle expected between September and October.
Gen Apirat will take up a key role in controlling the armed forces including during the election.
Although votes by military personnel weren't in the past significant enough to decide who would win an election, the NCPO still hopes its personnel will vote for the military party and any other parties that clearly support the military.
Troops as canvassers
The armed forces will play a bigger role in attempts to bar Pheu Thai from winning the race. Military officials will act more or less as canvassers for the military party and assess the popularity and the overall situation of parties in each constituency.
With his special powers provided under the charter's Section 44, Gen Prayut may deal by this means with canvassers from other parties in the name of suppressing mafia-style thugs and illegal weapons -- ever-present threats during elections.
What the military and the NCPO won't be able to control, as they also realise, is the loyalty which voters still have toward parties or politicians of their choice. No one can force them to vote for any party or candidate when the voters are actually in voting booths.
In the northern and northeastern constituencies that are Pheu Thai's political strongholds, despite development and infrastructure projects implemented in these areas over the past three years by the military, no clear indications have emerged that people there will shift their allegiance to the military or turn away from Pheu Thai.
Besides the armed forces and the NCPO's peace and order command, the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) is also emerging as a driving force behind achieving the NCPO's political goals.
The prime minister serves as director of Isoc, with the army chief serving as deputy director. Apart from that, the recent upgrade of Isoc to a permanent state agency has brought about permanent positions for military officials working in Isoc.
The positions include so-called provincial military deputy directors who more or less serve as deputy governors, coming from the military, working alongside real provincial governors, who serve as provincial Isoc directors in every province.
Isoc is now said to have more than 1 million supporters who are expected to vote for the military party or any party that clearly supports Gen Prayut to remain as prime minister after the next election.
Gen Prayut himself has gone on big-spending trips to the provinces in what his critics are now seeing as attempts to woo voters. And despite his claim that his trips had nothing to do with politics, and that he is doing the job reluctantly, he finally said on Wednesday, "I am a politician who used to be a soldier."
Critics fear that in a worst-case scenario, the election could be postponed again and again as a result of so-called "special situations" that may erupt, if the NCPO assesses that Pheu Thai will still win the poll no matter what it has done to stop that eventuality.