Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's membership of the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party has changed the political ball game for him as he has now accepted the status of full-time politician, and faces the enormous challenge of consolidating the new party.
Jan 9, the day he joined the party, marks a crucial turning point for Gen Prayut, long viewed as a reluctant or even a half-hearted politician despite having occupied the prime minister's seat for almost eight years.
On Gen Prayut's calendar, the fateful day ushered in the reality that the UTN will be his vehicle for seeking a third term as premier after the next election slated for May 7.
After parting company with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which secured him the premiership following the previous poll in 2019, Gen Prayut headed to the UTN and brought with him a shipload of expectations.
When Gen Prayut was with the PPRP, he was accused by some members of being aloof to the party and positioning himself more as an outsider and shrugging off any label of being a politician.
Now, a UTN subscriber on course to navigating the party through the election maze ahead, Gen Prayut has donned the cloak of full-time politician.
UTN needs A-listers
However, immense tasks await Gen Prayut at the UTN which must draw talent and many more big-name politicians into its fold if Gen Prayut is to have any chance of staging a comeback as prime minister following the next election, according to a source.
The source noted the launch of Gen Prayut's UTN membership was greeted with much fanfare although it sprang no spectacular surprises as it was not the star-studded event some had hoped for.
Apart from the UTN leader, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, and party secretary-general Akanat Promphan, a limited number of seasoned politicians were there to celebrate Gen Prayut's induction: Chatchawal Kong-udom, a chief adviser and former list MP of the Thai Local Power Party; Chumpol Kanchana, a veteran politician in Surat Thani from the Democrats; Trairong Suwannakhiri, former stalwart of the Democrat Party; and Suchart Chomklin, a labour minister and PPRP faction leader who defected to the UTN from the ruling party.
The source said the UTN needs a lot more "A-lister" politicians or MPs with strong potential to win the next poll. The party will be closely watched to see how much of a magnet it will be in attracting such promising names, who not only help the party to expand but lend Gen Prayut a much-needed thrust to clinch a third term as premier.
Sutin Klungsang, deputy leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party and opposition chief whip, said that despite Gen Prayut's denial, he has been a politician since he engineered the coup that toppled the Pheu Thai-led administration in 2014 and began serving as prime minister some time after that.
"He should have washed his hands of politics when he had the chance.
"But he decided to linger on to prolong his grip on power," Mr Sutin said.
At least a sense of clarity has emerged after Gen Prayut joined the UTN. For months, Gen Prayut had refused to confirm he was entering the UTN.
The party, according to Mr Sutin, will have to prove its worth by showing it can be an established political brand that can build up a solid support base within a short span of time before the election.
If Gen Prayut has agreed to be nominated by the UTN as prime ministerial candidate, it would be the first time that a party has nominated a prime ministerial candidate destined not to complete the term as premier if elected by parliament.
Gen Prayut was ruled at the end of September last year by the Constitutional Court as having two more years to serve in the premiership. A prime minister's term lasts four years.
Mr Sutin said that unlike in the previous election when Gen Prayut did not assume an active role in the PPRP, the prime minister will have no choice but become more hands-on in directing the UTN.
Although he is not a party leader, Gen Prayut finds that all the power in the UTN is in his hands.
The voters will also be keeping an eye on the politicians defecting to the UTN. Those who arrive late on the scene will have less time to campaign as rivals have a head-start in many constituencies, Mr Sutin said.
"Gen Prayut himself will also have to contend with the accumulating negative sentiment against him. He knows it is quite a hurdle to cross," he said.
The UTN cannot afford to be an ad hoc party. Such parties are hard to operate these days as voters have learned about their superficiality and realised they are as disunited as they are dysfunctional.
If the UTN captures an overwhelming victory in the poll, it will have the mandate to lead in the formation of a government.
But if it comes in as a fourth or fifth biggest party, it will have no legitimacy to band with other parties to secure their support for Gen Prayut to be elected prime minister in parliament.
"That would be hard for people to accept," he said.
Natchanon Srikorkua, the Bhumjaithai Party MP for Songkhla, said that at one point, Gen Prayut had been hesitant to join any party. He apparently wanted to "window-shop" first and ponder which parties had the capacity to capture at least 25 MP seats, the smallest number required for nominating a prime minister.
He agreed Gen Prayut must figure out how he can win the trust of politicians so they move to the UTN. The two parties in coalition ranks from which the UTN can lure the most defectors away are the PPRP and the Democrats.
However, the defections would also strain relations. The parties would not take it lying down as they would fight to prevent or stem the bleeding, Mr Natchanon said.
The MP said he believed deals have been struck that would drive more prominent politicians to switch parties.
Mr Natchanon said the UTN has no choice but to win big in the next poll. If it wins far fewer House seats than Bhumjaithai, for example, it would struggle to justify leading the formation of a government.
"Let's say, the UTN came up with 30 MP seats and the Bhumjaithai put together 120 seats. It's not hard to imagine which side the power scale would tip," he said.
The MP added the UTN should pick up between 50-80 MP seats at least if it were to claim any legitimacy to strive to lead the next government. A total of 500 House seats will be up for grabs, 400 constituency MPs and 100 list MPs, under the reintroduced dual-ballot polling system.
Gen Prayut's strength as a politician lies with his honesty, without which he would not have lasted in the job for as long as he has.
Mr Natchanon said Gen Prayut has adjusted himself to life as a politician. Embracing a politician's demeanour, he listens to people more and sometimes shares jokes with them.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said Gen Prayut, being at the forefront of the UTN, will be put under intense scrutiny as a politician.
He stands accused of misusing his power as prime minister to give the UTN an edge in the election, the academic said, adding political rivals will have a field day picking fault with his every misstep.
Any compromises or sense of giving in will wear thin between coalition parties as the poll competition intensifies, he said.
"Gen Prayut is well aware the faster he moves to take up the UTN membership, the sooner more politicians will decide to enter the party," he said.
Mr Wanwichit expressed doubts about the electability of some of the former MPs the UTN has welcomed into the fold. They were made list-MPs in the previous election thanks to the calculation method dictated by the single-ballot system which has now been scrapped.
"They would be lucky if even half of them get bumped up the list to the winning slots this time around," he said.
Gen Prayut is virtually the UTN's only magnet. Few members have gained prominence or come across as a bankable choice for public office.
Olarn Tinbangtiew, a lecturer at the faculty of political science and law, Burapha University, said Gen Prayut will have to capitalise on his support base and harness his image to calibrate the best strategy for the UTN's election victory.
"Gen Prayut appears more forthcoming in his attempt to offer himself as a prime ministerial candidate. But he needs to work more on communication with people, which will clarify lingering and unexplained issues about the party or the prime minister himself.
"People might have a question such as why Gen Prayut feels it is incumbent on him to return as premier and stay in the post for only two years, or what kind of future will it be for the country with a half-term prime minister," he said.
Mr Olarn said the PPRP and the UTN will compete against each other although they will likely negotiate over whose candidates should stand in what constituencies. If the candidate of one party is exceptionally strong in a constituency, the other party might opt out of the race.
According to opinion polls, Gen Prayut looks to command a more sizeable following in the party list system than the PPRP, he added.
The lecturer said he believed people will keep watch over how the military positions itself in the election.
The Interior Ministry, with a vast nationwide network of local administration organisations that wields power connected with elections, has been under Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda for almost eight years.
Gen Anupong is one of the "Three Por Generals", a powerful clique that also includes Gen Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, who also leads the PPRP. Gen Prawit has also received backing from his party to be nominated as prime minister.
Critics agreed Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit will be pitted against one another in the poll while the military and the Interior Ministry are divided over their support for the two men.