Anti-establishment graffiti covers a poster during a Bangkok street protest in 2020, displaying some of Thailand's top politicians.    Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich archive

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A dynastic daughter of the billionaire, anti-coup Shinawatra family is leading opinion polls to become prime minister in Sunday's (May 14) nationwide elections, but her victory could trigger another putsch by the coup-empowered, politicized, U.S.-trained military.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai (PTP) "For Thais" party's massive popularity sparked warnings by Thai media, politicians, academics, and others that the military may ignore the majority or crush them with fresh coup.

Responding to Thailand's latest public spasm of coup anxiety, Army Chief Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae told reporters on May 11:

"I can assure you that what occurred in the past, the chance is zero now," Gen. Narongpan said.

The army chief censored himself -- and asked all journalists to conform -- against uttering, publishing, or looking up the dictionary definition of the word "coup".

His linguistic demand made it difficult for him to say bluntly no coup would happen, and instead limited him to euphemisms.

"The term should not be used. It is not appropriate. I want reporters to remove it from your dictionary," the army chief said, according to the Bangkok Post.

Asked if the military deleted the word coup from its vocabulary, Gen. Narongpan replied, "Of course, it's removed.

"We have learned many lessons from the past," he said.

"We have reached a point where democracy has to go ahead. Everyone should be mindful and avoid what should not be done," the army chief said.

Since the 1930s, this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country and U.S. treaty ally has suffered more than a dozen coups.

Ms. Paetongtarn, 36 and politically inexperienced, also promises to give every Thai adult $10,000, and make recreational cannabis illegal again.

And she is nursing her newborn baby boy.

To spend more time with her infant, Ms. Paetongtarn may let PTP's Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon, become prime minister if PTP wins.

Separately, near Bangkok, the U.S. has warships offshore and boots on the ground -- during and after ballots are cast.

They are conducting a scheduled 29th bilateral annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Thailand (CARAT) naval exercise with the Thai navy.

CARAT "will take place ashore in Sattahip, Thailand, and at-sea in the Gulf of Thailand May 8-15," the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said.

CARAT "is designed to enhance U.S. and partner navies' abilities to operate together in response to traditional and not-traditional maritime security challenges in the Indo-Pacfic region," the Embassy said.

Thailand's international relations, including growing links with China and the U.S. -- especially the Pentagon -- are expected to remain friendly and relatively unchanged no matter who wins.

Throughout the 21st century, the Shinawatras and the military have been fighting a treacherous political blood feud.

The family's dynastic grip over a large swath of opposition voters worries many Thais, not just the military.

A heavy turnout cast ballots during "advance voting" which began May 7 -- one week before polls close on May 14.

People had to register in advance for convenient early voting, but most voters are expected to arrive at their local voting booths on May 14.

After counting ballots, competing parties will wrestle in Parliament, form a coalition, and announce a new prime minister, likely in September.

Voters can choose candidates to fill only Parliament's 500-member House of Representatives.

The military controls Parliament's junta-appointed 250-seat, five-year term Senate.

International and local investors, businesses, and others hope an elected civilian government will repair Thailand's crippled democracy, and replace unqualified military appointees in government ministries.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his recently created, tiny United Thai Nation (UTN) party are trailing in opinion polls for his reelection.

Mr. Prayuth, describing his pious altruism and nationalism, said in a campaign speech on Sunday (May 7):

"I have performed as prime minister in the most dutiful and ethical manner during the past eight years."

Mr. Prayuth was armed forces chief in May 2014 when he led a bloodless coup against the elected civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- who is Ms. Paetongtarn's aunt.

"If I did everything for my personal gain, would I have lasted this long as prime minister?" he said.

For several years, Mr. Prayuth ruled heading a junta, banning political activity, arresting civilian opponents, and other harsh measures before mellowing into a civilian prime minister, elected in 2019.

"There should be no coup again," he recently told reporters.

"If any serious conflict occurs again, I don't know how to solve it, because I have nothing to do with it now."

He presents a sanitized, dynamic, happy image of Thailand to foreign governments and investors.

Mr. Prayuth enacted a 2017 constitution which strengthened the Constitutional Court's power to dissolve political parties and banish their leaders.

The Constitution Court may dissolve Ms. Paetongtarn's or any party committing an election infraction, engaging in conflict of interest, or other illegalities before, during, or after the election -- even if the next prime minister takes office.

"I would expect that the Constitutional Court might find an excuse to force Thaksin's daughter out of office before any military coup might occur," said Paul Chambers, a social science lecturer and specialist about Thai polices at Naresuan University's Southeast Asia center.

"If there were angry demonstrations following the 'judicial coup,' then there could be a military coup that would happen before the yearly military reshuffle -- which regularly happens on September 30," Mr. Chambers said in an interview.

A coup is also possible if any prime minister tries to put the armed forces under civilian control, or interferes with officers' self-promotions up the ranks.

Military promotions create cliques within the armed forces, while securely isolating possible rival military factions.

Dangers of a coup increase exponentially if a victorious Ms. Paetongtarn allows her convicted father and his sister -- former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck -- to return from abroad without being locked up on fraud convictions, or face pending corruption charges.

If the Shinawatra siblings return without arrest, Thailand will be torn by those who love Mr. Thaksin, now 73, and those who despise him.

Clashes, for and against him, have killed hundreds in Bangkok's streets during recent years.

Many perceive Ms. Paetongtarn as a place-holder for her father who, after fleeing Thailand, inspires supporters with online announcements.

Mr. Thaksin, a former police official and telecommunications tycoon, was elected prime minister in 2001.

Both fugitives insist charges of corruption against them are politically motivated.

Throughout the 21st century, Thailand has been going back and forth between Shinawatra family-run governments alternating with coup-installed military regimes.

Thailand's politics have swirled with hatred, revenge, threats, elections, coups, juntas, lawsuits, imprisonments, and self-exiled civilians.

Opponents fear the Shinawatras, especially Mr. Thaksin, alleging they loot and destroy the country whenever they govern.

Supporters devoted to the Shinawatras praise Mr. Thaksin for providing universal "30 baht (88 U.S. cents) health care" in government hospitals, easy credit for the poor, scholarships, and other populist policies funded by taxes.

The Shinawatras' vote base may be split however.

Those who want a harder assault on the military's political power, are flocking to the smaller, more liberal, Move Forward Party (MFP) led by Pita Limjaroenrat.

Mr. Pita is much more mouthy about challenging the military, and is willing to join any coalition not linked to coups, or the military.

"The next government must comprise parties that come from the opposition bloc -- the MFP, Pheu Thai, Seri Ruam Thai, and Prachachat," Mr. Pita said on May 7.

Mr. Pita's swelling popularity is based partly on his stance which "ruled out any partnership with the military, thus enabling his party to get the nod from many undecided voters," Bangkok Post columnist and assistant news editor Chairith Yongpiam wrote on Saturday (May 6).

Mr. Pita and his MFP "may overtake Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) as the runner-up," enabling MFP to become the second-biggest winner in the election, following Ms. Paetongtarn's PTP which is expected to be number one, Mr. Chairith said.

BJT party leader and prime ministerial candidate Anutin Charnvirakul, is health minister in Mr. Prayuth's government and famous in Thailand for pushing cannabis to become legal for adults last year.

Mr. Anutin endorses cannabis for medical use only, and promises Thailand will become wealthy from growing marijuana.

Thousands of cannabis sellers opened shops across Thailand displaying expensive indica, sativa, and hybrids -- smuggled from California or legally grown locally.

They say tens of thousands of customers, mostly foreign tourists, are buying.

Cheaper "Thai stick" and other domestic sativas, plus tweaked exotics grown from imported seeds, are available from new marijuana farmers, or online.

Mr. Anutin displays confidence in cannabis as a lucrative crop for medical purposes, supported by the government, health officials, universities, researchers, politicians, and others.

Mr. Anutin offered to join any coalition -- military or civilian -- that will keep marijuana legal for adults.

Ms. Paetongtarn demands weed again be made illegal except for restricted clinics under medical staff treating patients who require it.

Ms. Paetongtarn's vow to reverse Mr. Anutin's cannabis liberalization, which enabled recreational use, evokes memories of her father's deadly three-month failed war on drugs.

Mr. Thaksin's anti-drug policies are linked to never-investigated, extrajudicial killings of more than 2,500 suspected illegal dealers and users of methamphetamines, opium, heroin, and marijuana.

Ms. Paetongtarn's stance against recreational marijuana would devastate Thailand's rapidly expanding public cannabis retail market.

Mr. Pita and his MFP are cool with tighter-regulated recreational cannabis for adults.

Ms. Paetongtarn's new populist scheme is to give the equivalent of $10,000 to every Thai over 16 years old -- rich or poor -- to shock Thailand's COVID-devasted economy back to life.

Prime Minister Prayuth's reelection looks troubled.

Many former supporters are weary of his lackluster leadership and public tantrums against Thailand's media -- he joked "we'll probably just execute them" and a threw a banana peel at Thai reporters.

He is also hobbled by a political expiration date.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled Mr. Prayuth held power since 2014, so he can be reelected for only two years, instead of the normal four years.

Ex-army chief Prawit Wongsuwan, born in 1945, was Mr. Prayuth's deputy prime minister 2008-11 and qualifies for a four-year term.

As a result, Mr. Prawit may end up as the military's more acceptable prime minister.

At the ballot box, Mr. Prawit appears to be Mr. Prayuth's rival for the prime ministry even though they are lifelong military comrades.

After recently breaking away from Mr. Prayuth's party, Mr. Prawit set up a small Palang Pracha Rath Party (PPRP), competing with Mr. Prayuth to attract candidates and votes.

Mr. Prawit insists he didn't participate in the 2014 coup and later joined the junta.

After the election, Mr. Prawit and Mr. Prayuth may combine their House seats with other small pro-military parties, plus the Senate's 250 appointees.

If that doesn't form a Parliamentary majority, they could declare a military-dominated "minority government".

It would be legal, but a Bangkok Post headline on May 6 warned:

"Minority Government Idea Alarms. Street Protests Likely, Coup Fears Surface."

A minority government is a bad idea, critics say, because it doesn't represent the majority of ballots.

It could also be extinguished by the majority's "no-confidence vote" in Parliament.

That could tempt the military to launch another coup to ensure Mr. Thaksin won't come home without being busted.

To become prime minister, a candidate needs at least majority of 376 Parliament votes from Parliament's 750 total.

Mr. Prayuth's coup changed the previously elected Senate to become 250 military appointees, who are now expected to block any party threatening to cut the armed forces' political power.

"The Senate with 250 senators will almost totally vote for Prayuth or Prawit," Mr. Chambers said.

Either man would need 126 House additional seats from pro-military parties, to total 376 and become prime minister.

"That means that Pheu Thai needs an extreme majority to win -- 376 seats," Mr. Chambers said.

"If the Pheu Thai or Move Forward Party is dissolved, then it becomes impossible for Pheu Thai to form a coalition."

PTP and MFP also compete with each other for votes.

MFP appeals to Thailand's younger generations, including some abandoning Ms. Paetongtarn because of her anti-recreational cannabis stance.

"I will vote Pheu Thai, not because I like Thaksin, but just to change this government," said an exasperated transportation worker.

"During the past eight years, prices of food, and gasoline, and everything has increased too much.

"Pita is good too, but Pita and their MFP are mostly for young people," the middle-aged man said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at