Under the army's close watch
Poll outcome will not diminish the military's prominent role in politics
The military will continue to play an important role in Thai politics this year, regardless of whether or not Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha returns as premier after the general election.
In 2019, the military's peacekeeping force will be responsible for maintaining peace and order ahead of the general elections, until the poll results are announced.
Established after the coup in 2014, the peacekeeping force initially consisted of troops from 240 military companies. In the middle of last year, the number of companies that make up the force was reduced to 160.
Another important task that the military has been entrusted with is the maintenance of order during His Majesty the King's coronation ceremony, which is scheduled for May 4-6.
Based on the time frame announced after a meeting between the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and political parties held at Dec 7 last year, the election was supposed to be held on Feb 24.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam recently said the poll will likely be delayed to avoid clashing with the coronation ceremony and other relevant events that will take place before and after the three-day coronation period.
Calls are mounting for Gen Prayut, also the NCPO's chief, to take the high road and step down straight away if he wants to return as premier.
Critics questioned whether it would be appropriate for Gen Prayut to remain in power, after the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) said it was looking to nominate him as its prime ministerial candidate.
But Gen Prayut said, "I will have to continue to be prime minister so as to oversee preparations for the election and the coronation ceremony."
Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong also called on all politicians to accept the election results regardless of the outcome.
"The poll results must be accepted, no matter who wins or loses. You'd better settle your differences in parliament rather than outside, because it will cause trouble," Gen Apirat said.
"Everyone wants an election, and I hope no one will incite unrest that affects the poll."
Gen Apirat is currently in China on a four-day official visit to discuss "security issues affecting the region". The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) chief will meet China's defence minister and armed forces leaders before returning on Wednesday.
Observers said that if Gen Prayut stages a comeback as prime minister after the poll, the military -- especially under Gen Apirat -- will continue to support Gen Prayut and his post-election government.
Gen Apirat is known to have had Gen Prayut's support for a large part of his career, giving rise to speculation that the army under his leadership will back Gen Prayut's return to power after the poll, a source said.
Despite not coming from the Burapha Phayak (Tigers of the East) clique -- the nickname of the military clique attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, the Queen's Guard -- Gen Apirat is known to have close ties with Gen Prayut.
Gen Prayut, Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda are part of the Burapha Phayak clique. Gen Apirat belongs to another military clique named Wong Thewan, which is attached to the 1st Division, the King's Guard.
When Gen Prayut staged the coup in May 2014, Gen Apirat served as the commander of the 1st Division, in charge of the troops in Bangkok.
Gen Prayut then appointed Gen Apirat to oversee the Government Lottery Office when the NCPO focused on tackling overpriced lottery tickets.
During his stint as assistant army chief, Gen Apirat was put in charge of an NCPO special operations team, taking assignments directly from Gen Prayut as NCPO chief, the source said.
Gen Apirat was also appointed by His Majesty the King as a special officer attached to the Royal Bodyguards Department under the Royal Security Command, according to a Royal Gazette announcement issued on July 17 last year.
When he became the new army chief on Oct 1, Gen Apirat was already serving as NCPO secretary-general and commander of its peacekeeping forces.
Lt Gen Apirat is a son of late military strongman Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led the National Peace Keeping Council that seized power from Chatichai Choonhavan's government in 1991.
Gen Apirat still has two years to serve before his mandatory retirement in 2020 -- long enough to support Gen Prayut's bid for power after the poll, the source said.
However, if Gen Prayut fails to return as prime minister, and the Pheu Thai Party and its allies succeed in forming a government after the poll, Gen Prayut will still be perceived by Pheu Thai as "the opposition outside parliament" and the army may have adjust its role accordingly, observers said.
In October last year, Gen Apirat stoked fear among politicians by not ruling out another military putsch in the future. "If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen," he said.
However, the source said that as long as the military maintains its neutrality in politics, it is unlikely that another coup will take place, even if Pheu Thai emerges as the victor in the polls.
Those in the new government would rather leave the military alone than try to upset it by reshuffling the current batch of armed forces leaders appointed by the Prayut government, the source said.