BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's new acting leader, Mr Prawit Wongsuwan, represents little substantial change from suspended Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha for opposition forces seeking to end what they decry as military dominance of politics.
For the ruling coalition led by the pro-army Palang Pracharat party, Mr Prawit's caretaker role represents stability until the Constitutional Court decides whether Mr Prayut's time as a military leader from 2014 to 2019 counts towards a constitutionally stipulated eight-year term limit, as the opposition argues.
Mr Prawit, 77, who has been a deputy prime minister since 2019, is a longtime ally of Mr Prayut and was part of the military junta that ruled Thailand for nearly five years following Mr Prayut's 2014 coup ouster of an elected government.
Like Mr Prayut himself, Mr Prawit is a former chief of the army and is known for his fierce loyalty to the monarchy - both men served in the elite Queen's Guard unit closely associated with the palace.
However, unlike Mr Prayut, he has tended to wield influence behind the scenes.
Mr Prawit has long been seen as a power-broker both within the Palang Pracharat party, which he co-founded, and among the wealthy elite that align themselves with Thailand's royal family and the military.
"Prawit has his power through connections with the business elite," Professor Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, told Reuters.
"By becoming acting prime minister, Prawit will help stabilise the political situation and consolidate the ruling coalition and related business interests ahead of the election," Prof Titipol said.
Penchant for expensive watches
While he may be most adept at behind-the-scenes influence, Mr Prawit has also faced public scrutiny.
He survived an anti-corruption investigation and fierce public criticism in 2018 after he appeared in a photograph wearing a diamond ring and expensive watch that did not appear on his public asset declaration.
Activists later identified at least 25 other luxury watches the former general was photographed wearing but had not declared. Mr Prawit said the timepieces were lent to him.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission later ruled there was no sufficient evidence to press charges of false declaration of assets.
That controversy, plus his close association with Mr Prayut's junta, means that even in an acting role, Mr Prawit might face much of the same opposition as the man he is standing in for, said Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Prawit will be embattled from day one," Prof Thitinan said. "He might be a fixer and a broker within the coalition and Palang Pracharat… but himself he is highly unpopular with the public."
Mr Prawit and Mr Prayut rose through the ranks together, though Mr Prawit was the senior officer for much of their army careers.
Mr Prawit was Mr Prayut's superior when they were in the Queen's Guard. Both also served in the Burapha Payak or Eastern Tigers army clique with a power base in eastern Thailand.
Mr Prawit rose to be chief of the armed forces from 2004 to 2005 and, after retirement, was defence minister in a civilian government from 2008 to 2011.
But in the past year, there have been signs of tension between Mr Prayut and Mr Prawit over the direction of the ruling party after it expelled 21 lawmakers, led by a Prawit loyalist, Mr Thammanat Prompao, a former deputy agriculture minister.
However, observers do not see the change from Mr Prayut to Mr Prawit as having a significant impact on the political trajectory dominated by the royalist military elite.
"This is typical political conflict between factions," Prof Titipol said. "But at the end they will save each other and stay together."