Prayut in the driver's seat as election countdown begins: The Nation columnist

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends the opening session of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends the opening session of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Will Pheu Thai definitely win the election?

Politics has returned to front pages in a hurry. Stressed as we might be, it's difficult to blame anyone, because one year is a short rehearsal time for a general election, especially if you are Prayut Chan-o-cha, his opponents Pheu Thai, its opponents the Democrat Party, and all the supporting cast.

The key battle will be between the military government and Pheu Thai. While that is clear, the rest of the picture is blurry, if not a mess.

Will Prayut's supporters manage to manoeuvre his return as post-election prime minister, possibly with the help of a yet-to-be-formed alternative party? Will Pheu Thai forge a hitherto unimaginable alliance with the Democrats to keep him out? Who will succeed Yingluck Shinawatra as the next leader of Pheu Thai? And will he or she go for broke or be ready to their cut losses by horse-trading with rivals?

What about the Democrats? Will Abhisit Vejjajiva remain their leader going into the polls, or will the party want a new face to sex things up? Will Thaksin Shinawatra continue funding Pheu Thai, knowing his "investment" faces perhaps more risk than ever? What happens to the party if he backs away, deciding that election victories are just "boasting rights" that he has had enough of? Or will he give it one last try?

Right now, we can only speculate on the answers. More certain is that signs of all-out political warfare are few, meaning everyone is still watching their own back, wary of knives from within and without. Much of the paranoia has to do with senators' empowerment in selecting the prime minister, coupled with Prayut's popularity, whose ebb and flow will hit new levels of volatility from here on in.

Prayut's rating on election day will determine the vote's outcome. Since he is the figure pitted against the Shinawatra clan, if voters like him, they will like the latter less. And vice versa. It's that simple.

Recent ministerial departures and talk of a Cabinet shake-up strongly indicate Prayut is gauging his popularity carefully. Still unclear, though, is his ultimate ambition.

His latest cheeky questions to the Thai people, effectively asking whether they want the same old post-election politics where controversial characters dominate decision-making, can be interpreted in various ways. He's addicted to power, his most vocal critics say. He wants his coup to amount to something, his supporters insist.

So, everybody is waiting for clearer signs from everybody else. Prayut wants to know who will be Pheu Thai's next leader so he can decide on his next moves. Pheu Thai wants to know his ultimate plans so it can devise strategies accordingly.

The biggest party is also waiting for a stronger signal from Thaksin than his "Montesquieu" tweet in the wake of his sister's vanishing act. Thaksin, meanwhile, is probably awaiting signs from voters of how many seats they will give Pheu Thai in the election.

This doesn't mean things are any easier for the Democrats, though, because if Prayut's rating dips, Pheu Thai will have a great head-start as his No 1 rival. In other words, the Democrats want to know how well or badly Prayut is going to fare in the coming months.

The Democrat Party has sent out mixed messages regarding Prayut, while Pheu Thai has taken the path of direct confrontation, asking him to "unlock" coup-imposed restraints on political activities. Should the public grow tired of Prayut over the next few months, Pheu Thai has "scored" early. But if they believe Prayut's claim of acting for the sake of peace, the call to unlock politics should work in the Democrats' favour.

The political "supporting cast" is also watching the prime minister's popularity rating carefully. If it plunges, they will gravitate to Pheu Thai. If not, they will hedge their bets accordingly.

Will Pheu Thai definitely win the election? The general perception is that it's not a question of "if" but "by how much". However, it might not emerge as the biggest party after the poll, and that depends on two key factors: Prayut's popularity and whether or not a third party is formed. Analysts agree that a third party would likely attract a number of former Pheu Thai lawmakers, who are about as loyal to Thaksin as European footballers are to their clubs.

And again, how well a third party would perform at the polls would depend largely on Prayut. Among all the people or groups mentioned, he is the one with the greatest control over his own destiny. He didn't have to ask those "questions", in fact, since the answers are tied to the work that he has done and will do in the next few months.