An election poster being distributed in Bangkok shows Prime
Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and another candidate in the newly created
Palang Pracharat party.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- After nearly five years of junta rule, a bitter
election on March 24 pits pro-democracy "scum of the earth" against
the military government's "dictator" prime minister, but a party
demanding recreational marijuana may decide whose coalition governs.

The polarizing, confrontational changes in this Buddhist-majority,
U.S. ally come when there is no American ambassador assigned to

President Trump boosted Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha with an 2017
White House visit, even though the former army chief's 2014 coup
enforced suffocating military rule.

In February, the Pentagon held its annual multinational Cobra Gold
military exercise in Thailand, after the Obama administration
curtailed assistance because of Mr. Prayuth's putsch.

Neighboring China meanwhile strengthened economic, military and
cultural links and immediately supported Mr. Prayuth after he ousted a
democratically elected government.

The election however focuses entirely on the junta versus
pro-democracy candidates.

After some candidates demanded less military spending, Army Chief Gen.
Apirat Kongsompong told them to listen to "Scum of the Earth," an
anti-communist propaganda ditty broadcast by a military regime during
the bloody 1970s.

Gen. Apirat's invoking of the patriotic song and its sudden blaring on
120 military radio stations in February, rattled anti-junta
politicians, activists, and local media -- especially because he is
the son of a former army supreme commander who led a 1991 coup.

But some of Mr. Prayuth's fans were pleased.

"They are the scum of the earth," hissed a usually mild-mannered
physician in his hospital office, cursing anti-junta candidates.

"I am very stressed about this election. Who will win?"

Many Thais are relieved that the military government ended decades of
periodic, deadly, political street clashes.

Divisions smolder however despite Mr. Prayuth's crackdowns against
political activity, free speech, and other basic rights.

Dissidents have been taken to army bases for "attitude adjustment."
Some had assets frozen.

Scores fled the country. Others are banned from leaving Thailand or
imprisoned for expressing opposition to the regime.

Mr. Prayuth's prime ministerial candidacy enjoys support among the
military, Bangkok's elite and middle class, royalists, bureaucrats,
and other powerful elements.

Others are weary.

"I know him personally, he is a good man but he has stayed on too
long," a royalist confided during a recent banquet inside the Grand
Palace hosted by a Thai princess and attended by Mr. Prayuth, U.S. and
other diplomats, the king's privy council, and others.

"He had to take over the country to bring peace. But now he wants to
continue just to be in power, and that's not the same thing," she
said, sipping champagne.

Mr. Prayuth's Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon is currently
appointing a 250-member, junta-friendly Senate to ensure Mr. Prayuth's

The election is limited to 500 House of Representatives' seats.

After the polls, Mr. Prayuth's newly created Palang Pracharat party
hopes to join smaller pro-junta parties in the House.

They need 126 House seats, combined with their 250 appointed Senate
seats, to achieve 376 -- a majority of the total 750 for Mr. Prayuth
to continue as prime minister.

Anti-junta candidates would probably not get any Senate seats. So
their coalition needs a 376 majority within the House to choose a
prime minister.

All parties promise to help poor people, improve agriculture, end
corruption, and upgrade infrastructure.

With a junta-appointed Senate, pro-democracy parties' policies will be
difficult or impossible to pass even with their own prime minister.

For nearly five years, the often angry, threatening and sulking Mr.
Prayuth ruled with near-absolute powers under a 2017 constitution he

If elected, he faces a pro-democracy opposition in the House
determined to block his policies and trash his previous "dictator"

Former authoritarian Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who won
landslide elections in 2001 and 2005, is Mr. Prayuth's ghostly nemesis
haunting the polls.

The military's 2006 coup toppled Mr. Thaksin. He fled overseas dodging
prison for a corruption conviction but voters elected pro-Thaksin
prime ministers in other 21st century polls.

Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire, even got his sister Yingluck elected prime
minister in 2011 as his proxy.

Mr. Prayuth's 2014 coup ended Ms. Yingluck's government. She fled
abroad escaping imprisonment for financial "negligence" during her

Today, the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party offers three prime ministerial
candidates who deny Mr. Thaksin manipulates them.

Pheu Thai "is widely tipped to win the highest number"
of House seats, and form a coalition with smaller anti-junta parties,
the Bangkok Post reported on March 16.

These include the bold Future Forward party's prime ministerial
candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who younger voters favor.

The wealthy Mr. Thanathorn wants to end the army's draft, slash their
budget, punish officers who stage coups, and rewrite Mr. Prayuth's
restrictive constitution.

The moderate, mid-sized Bhum Jai Thai party may join that coalition,
in exchange for naming the next prime minister, analysts said.

Their popularity skyrocketed after demanding Mr. Prayuth lift
restrictions on recently legalized medical marijuana and also allow
recreational use and public growing and selling to the government for
retail distribution.

Farmers are suffering low prices for rice, rubber and other crops.
Bhum Jai Thai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a construction tycoon,
predicts marijuana will be Thailand's most profitable cash crop.

Another candidate, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said, "I
will definitely not support Prayuth because [his] prolonged stay in
power will create conflicts."

But the Democrat party leader was not widely believed, because he
allied with the army to crush a pro-election Bangkok insurrection in
2010 during which nearly 100 people died.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting
from Asia since 1978.       Attachments