Prayut's plans still a mystery
Will he stay in politics? If he stays, will he jump parties? The jury's out
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is keeping tight-lipped about his political future although the Sept 30 Constitutional Court ruling allows him to stand for re-election and serve what remains of his eight-year premiership.
According to the ruling, Gen Prayut's tenure as prime minister started in April 2017, when the charter came into force. This means he can complete his current term of office and still have a few more years to go.
While the decision is widely seen as extending Gen Prayut's political lifeline, analysts say it also poses a question of "what's next" for the prime minister.
Will he persevere with his political career when he can serve only half the four-year term of a new administration, if he is re-elected by parliament after the general election expected in the first half of next year? Or will he take a break?
Not a quitter
Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, is willing to place his bet on Gen Prayut seeking to make a comeback as leader of the next government.
The only question is whether he will remain with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) that nominated him as the party's sole prime ministerial candidate in the 2019 polls.
If Gen Prayut chooses to stay with the PPRP, he is unlikely to be the party's No 1 prime ministerial candidate, according to the academic.
Instead, he will be a second choice after PPRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon who has overwhelming support from party members, given the number of votes of confidence which Gen Prawit, the deputy premier, received in every censure debate.
Mr Yutthaporn said he does not believe there is a deep-rooted conflict between Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda and any friction in their ties is likely the product of their supporters pursuing their own political interests.
There is a possibility Gen Prayut will jump ship and be the prime ministerial candidate of one of the newly-established political parties such as the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party (RTSC), he said.
Headed by former Democrat veteran Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, the party is widely seen as a backup for Gen Prayut although the prime minister denies any political association with it. Mr Pirapan is also an adviser to the prime minister.
RTSC was founded by Seksakol Atthawong, a former aide to the prime minister. It gained public attention early last year after claims surfaced that it was set up as an alternative to the PPRP, should the ruling party encounter any legal trouble.
Mr Yutthaporn said if Gen Prayut chooses to take a break or quit politics for good, he must have been assured that his successor can fill his shoes.
"I'm leaning towards Gen Prayut staying on in politics. And it's likely that he will part ways with the PPRP because we've seen new parties emerge. RTSC is a party to watch and it may nominate Gen Prayut as prime minister candidate," he said.
It would be an uphill battle for RTCS to secure 25 seats qualifying it to nominate Gen Prayut as prime minister due to Gen Prayut's declining popularity, according to Mr Yutthaporn.
The prime minister faces much criticism, whether concerning his legitimacy to serve, or his ability to tackle problems particularly his handling of the economy.
There are also new parties to vie for votes with the RTSC, not to mention the rise of the Bhumjaithai Party which has lured MPs from both government and opposition camps into its fold, he said.
"But my suggestion is that he should quit politics and resign from the post, which will be a graceful exit. He should have stepped aside on Aug 24. So, he should wash his hands of politics after this. He should not stay, even as an MP," he said.
Mr Yutthaporn also raised the possibility of the charter being revised to remove the eight-year limit.
If this was the case, the Sept 30 ruling would be void and Gen Prayut would have a clean slate.
Making a compromise
Gen Prayut's road to Government House is not paved with roses, according to Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thammasat University.
He said if Gen Prayut stays with the PPRP, he will face more pressure from PPRP members, some of whom recently stepped up calls for him to join the party and learn about its internal workings.
Gen Prayut has been criticised of staying aloof and failing to respond to the PPRP MPs' suggestions.
With the next polls set to take place in early May next year, calls are getting louder for the premier to join the party ranks and be involved in the party's affairs.
If he leaves the PPRP, there is no guarantee his new party, which is likely to be the RTCS, can win 25 seats to qualify to nominate him as prime minister.
Section 159 of the constitution stipulates that only a party with at least 25 seats (5% of the 500 House seats) can nominate a prime ministerial candidate for a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate to vote on.
When compared with the RTSC, Gen Prayut has a better chance with the PPRP, according to the academic.
Even if the Senate, appointed by the now-defunct the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), is on his side, if the RTSC wins only 30-40 seats and is not the largest or second largest party in the bloc, Gen Prayut will face a legitimacy problem in serving as the prime minister, he said.
"Either way, it's not easy for Gen Prayut. And if the so-called democracy camp does win by a landslide, Gen Prayut will lose legitimacy to lead the next government. I think it's tough work ahead," he said.
Mr Virot said it is likely Gen Prayut will work out a deal with Gen Prawit on splitting the prime ministerial term and get more involved with the party's internal affairs.
"I think the most likely scenario is that Gen Prayut stays on with the PPRP. However, there will be a deal between him, Gen Prawit and the party MPs. Dissent is growing and the party candidates don't think Gen Prayut has any pull factor," he said.
The academic did not rule out the chance of Gen Prayut washing his hands of politics if he has other tasks to fulfil.
Mr Virot agreed with Mr Yutthaporn that Gen Prayut should leave politics for good to help ease political tension and reduce conflicts. Gen Prawit is more approachable and may bring a smooth political transition, he said.
Pheu Thai leader Dr Cholnan Srikaew had suggested Gen Prawit might be a better person than Gen Prayut to form alliances with after the next general election.
Dr Cholnan's view was echoed by Pol Gen Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of the Seri Ruam Thai Party, who said his party might be able to team up with Gen Prawit, but not Gen Prayut.
Meanwhile, a source in the PPRP said how Gen Prayut chooses to proceed depends on his talks with Gen Prawit and if Gen Prayut decides to remain in politics he will be with the PPRP.
"He has maintained he isn't a politician, so he's unlikely to join another party. He doesn't know what it is like to be a politician. So we can rule out this possibility," said the source.