What a difference a year makes.
Artiwara Kongmalai, the lead singer of the band, Bodyslam, who raised one billion baht (S$41 million) for underfunded hospitals by running from the south to the north of Thailand , has topped year-end popularity polls, leaving premier Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was tagged by one pollster as the 2016 “person of the year”, trailing behind.
As Thailand edges towards its fourth year under military rule amid hints that a promised November election may be delayed, General Prayut is facing growing pressure to justify his continued rule.
After seizing power in a coup in May 2014, junta chief Prayut laid out a “road map” to elections. While it contained no specific timelines, it mapped out milestones, most of which have now come to pass. A major one was the drafting and promulgation of a new Constitution. That took place last April.
Even some milestones left unsaid have now been crossed. While the military is firmly in control, Thailand’s long-time monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died in October 2016, and his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, presided over a grand and emotional send-off for his widely revered father last October.
“The new era has arrived,” Mr Kan Yuenyong, who heads the think -tank Siam Intelligence Unit, told The Straits Times. “Fundamentally, the function of the junta has already finished in the eyes of the public.”
King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s assertive and more direct control over palace security, finances and other affairs has, in the meantime, raised questions over the long-term relationship between the monarchy and the military.
ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute visiting fellow Pongphisoot Busbarat wrote in a publication this week: “Although the relationship between these two power centres shows no conflict on the surface, it is unclear to what extent the military will accommodate this new approach.”
In the shorter term, though, much of the overt tension is expected to centre on the elusive election.
Last August, the pieces seemed to be falling in place for the junta when the politically inconvenient incarceration of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was averted at the last minute.
She fled before a court sentenced her to five years’ jail for negligence over her administration’s multibillion-dollar rice subsidy scheme. An unconfirmed sighting of the popular Puea Thai party figure in London last week does not alter the fact that she is no longer a threat to the junta.
Yet Gen Prayut has refused to lift the ban on political activity, triggering an outcry from political parties, which are required by a new law to update their memberships by tomorrow. Instead, he has issued an order that, among other things, allows them to start work only from April.
It raised concerns he was tilting the playing field in favour of new parties that would support continued military influence.
Politicians from the rival Puea Thai and Democrat parties have challenged the grounds of this order.
“Don’t ever think that the arbitrary use of absolute power will not meet opposition from people who overthrew those who used elections as a tool to serve dictators,” Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told the Bangkok Post.
Privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda, himself a former general and unelected prime minister for much of the 1980s, was unusually blunt about ebbing support for Gen Prayut.
“Tu has used up most of his reserves,” he said, using the premier’s nickname. “You barely have any left. But if we show goodwill to Thai people, those reserves will return.”
Economic tailwinds could help the premier, say analysts. The Bank of Thailand estimates that gross domestic product expanded a robust 3.9 per cent last year, and is expected to maintain the momentum this year. Much will also depend on how rural incomes grow to support domestic consumption.
As the clock ticks towards November, however, the premier should expect progressively louder questions should he continue to keep the lid on legitimate political activity.