BANGKOK, Thailand -- After nearly five years in power, Thailand's
coup-installed military regime will allow nationwide elections on
March 24 for a House of Representatives and prime minister. But
analysts and activists warn instability will torment whoever wins.

Machiavellian, moody and often angry, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha
orchestrated a controversial post-coup constitution which enables him
to extend his prime ministry either through the ballot box or as an
unelected leader.

Whichever route he chooses, Mr. Prayuth would need support from 376
House and Senate members out of a total 750.

Mr. Prayuth knows his junta-appointed 250-seat Senate is virtually
guaranteed to boost him. So he needs only 126 pro-Prayuth politicians
among the 500 elected House members to reach a combined 376.

Unfortunately for an opposition candidate to become prime minister,
several parties would likely need to form a coalition because they
need to collect all 376 seats solely in the House, while the appointed
Senate is expected to be hostile.

Even in victory, an opposition prime minister will suffer traumas
governing alongside the junta-appointed Senate, analysts said.

Campaigning toward the March 24 polls is also problematic under the
junta's limits against free speech and restrictions on normal
political activity.

Mr. Prayuth seized power in a May 2014 coup when he was army chief.

He may try to extend his prime ministry by becoming the new Palang
Pracharath Party's candidate. All parties have until Feb. 8 to name up
to three prime ministerial candidates.

"If I decide to stay on, to carry on the work, I will need to
subscribe to a party which is dedicated...not one which seeks to undo
everything this government has started," Mr. Prayuth said January 22.

All parties express altruistic, capitalist platforms promising to fix
the uneven economy, help the poor, and crush corruption.

"I have detected no anti-U.S. candidate or party," Rand Corp. member
and former foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an

"The election will likely further improve Thailand's relations with
the United States, regardless of who will become Thailand's prime
minister afterwards. I feel that President Trump's support may have
helped legitimize Prime Minister Prayuth in some circles, but the
degree is not significant enough to influence the results of the
election," he said.

"A very important issue that the parties and candidates have not
addressed sufficiently is the current serious air pollution in
Bangkok.  It was reported that Bangkok had the ninth dirtiest air of
all the cities in the world.  It was good that the Thai and
international press are bringing this vitally important subject up

"The air pollution in Bangkok, especially the abundance of PM 2.5
dust, is serious and detrimental to people's health both short-term
and long-term. Political parties and the government should formulate
comprehensive policy proposals to effectively tackle this problem most
urgently," Mr. Kantathi said.

Dissidents are also not pleased with the way election campaigning has proceeded.

"The election [campaign] is not fair, Prayuth has all the advantages
including full authoritative power and the support from the army and
civil servants," Kittithat Sumalnop said in an interview.

Mr. Kittithat is a pro-democracy activist nicknamed "Champ" who was
yanked off a sidewalk and detained in 2014 one month after the coup,
for silently reading George Orwell's "1984" in public.

Mr. Prayuth regarded the reader's symbolic protest as a dangerous
anti-junta stunt violating the regime's harsh censorship and
anti-politics laws.

"I was detained by plainclothes officers, very likely from the
military. There a no formal punishment, but I was hit many times, both
on my head and my body with their punches, kicks, and elbows, to
subdue me and intimidate me," he said.

He and other detained activists were taken to the Royal Thai Army's
sports stadium "to be interrogated by the military. We were there six
hours in total before they made us sign a contract not to engage in
political actions again, and released us."

If he is able to stay on as prime minister, "Prayuth won't have the
full power as the junta head, and will have to deal with more
opposition," Mr. Kittithat said.

"If Prayuth wins through the election 'fairly', i.e. no major cheating
or harassing the oppositions, the U.S. will welcome him like other
elected prime ministers. After all, they still welcome him while he is
a dictator.

"But if Prayuth decides to play dirty or stay in power through a
legislative loophole and political deadlock, the U.S. will treat him
the same way, or maybe worse," Mr. Kittithat said.

"Pro-democracy activists are disappointed about the U.S. support, but
they're not going to vote for Prayuth anyway. The conservative
high-class and middle-class people who support Prayuth condemn the
U.S. for their opposition to Prayuth after the coup," when Barack
Obama was president. "After Trump showed his support, those people
welcome it. They are going to vote for him nonetheless," he said.

"In private, even the most conservative and reactionary politicians
seek support from the U.S. After all, the U.S. supported them in the
past during the Cold War against the progressives, socialists and
communists. Only after the U.S. became a pro-liberal democracy and
[President George W. Bush] condemned the 2006 coup, they had a falling
out. Yet they always hope for the return to normal relations between
the two countries," Mr. Kittithat said.

"The most important issue is economy, since it got worse under the
junta. Another one is democracy and the end of military rule, which is
only important ideologically. Ordinary people only care about the
first. Political-minded people also care about the second.

"Even the Prayuth-aligned Palang Pracharath party admits that poor
people are suffering under the junta's rule. Also, the demand for a
comprehensive welfare state has been growing from the left-wing
progressives. Prominent political parties, big and small, are trying
to promote different degrees of welfare and economic policies," Mr.
Kittithat said.

Relations linking Washington and Bangkok meanwhile appear to be
improving, and the elections are expected to help.

Thailand's "constitutional and election obviously
designed to ensure continued military leadership," Benjamin Zawacki,
Southeast Asia analyst and author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground
Between the U.S. and a Rising China," said in an interview.

"In many respects, the United States needs -- and judging by low
levels of demand and dissent among the Thai populace, wants -- the
elections more than Thailand does.
America's ability to fully re-engage with Thailand hinges on the
polls, and given increasingly pressing concerns in the region, such
re-engagement is squarely in the U.S.'s interest.

"In that sense, the U.S. will readily accept any outcome broadly
within Thailand's new constitutional and election framework, which is
obviously designed to ensure continued military leadership.  Whether
the premiership is retained by Prayuth or by another officer, by a man
in uniform or in mufti, will matter little to how Thailand is governed
and how its relations with the U.S. proceed," he said.

"While most American leadership, President Trump likely excepted,
would prefer a truly civilian Thai administration, the Americans won't
press their case if an election is held.

"So long as some semblance of campaigning is permitted before March
24, and the polls themselves do not face direct interference or
violence, the U.S. will accept them as 'free and fair'.

"Historically, the Democrat Party is slightly 'closer' to the U.S.
than the others in the race, but most of those connections have either
lapsed or been replaced by Thailand's 21st-century embrace of a more
authoritarian model of governance," Mr. Zawacki said.

Washington "welcomes the official announcement that Thailand will hold
elections on March 24," the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said January 24.

"We look forward to a result that reflects open debate and the will of
the Thai people."

President Trump hosted a delighted Mr. Prayuth in the White House in 2017.

For decades, the Pentagon has trained Thailand's military which is
bleeding in a stalemate against Muslim Malay-Thai separatist
guerrillas in the south, where more than 7,000 people have died on all
sides since 2004.

"We notice a significant drift towards China in political, military
and economical terms under the junta," said Arnaud Dubus, author of
several books on Thai politics.

"A new government headed by Prayuth would probably extend and
consolidate this drift. A government under a civilian prime minister
would very likely try to re-balance the relationships with the U.S.
and China," Mr. Dubus said in an interview.

The "political power of the military, improvement of the daily life of
the people, and fight against corruption across the board -- not
excluding the military, as is the case today," are the biggest
election issues, he said.

The leading opposition Pheu Thai Party will reportedly name three
prime ministerial candidates: Sudarat Keyuraphan, former transport
minister Chadchart Sittipunt, and former justice minister Chaikasem

"Obviously, the Pheu Thai is the strongest opponent of political power
of the military. The stance of the Democrat party is less clear and
they could probably ally with military if it is beneficial  for them,
as in 2008," Mr. Dubus said.

"The constitution, the constituencies' [geographic] drawing, and the
use of government money and apparatus by the pro-junta party show
clearly that the elections' format is biased. But not to the point of
blocking the expression of the choice of the majority.

"The result will reflect this choice, but the main problem is the
military-appointed Senate which will allow a minority government to
lead the country. Unavoidably, instability will follow," he said.

"If Prayuth stays as prime minister, I expect political instability
and a progressive worsening of political tensions, with a possible
violent crisis in one or two years.
If Pheu Thai leads the government, there will be also instability,"
Mr. Dubus said.

Pheu Thai however is perceived to be under the influence of former
authoritarian prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who also dominated his
sister Yingluck's prime ministry.

The wealthy siblings are international fugitives dodging prison
sentences and court cases for corruption committed during their
administrations, but are still considered extremely popular.

Mr. Prayuth participated in a 2006 putsch which overthrew Mr. Thaksin
who then, from self-exile, led several incarnations of his party to
election victories.

That ended when Mr. Prayuth led the coup which toppled Ms. Yingluck's
government in 2014.

Meanwhile the Democrat Party, trailing a distant second place, is
keeping its military-friendly former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
as its sole prime ministerial candidate.

Mr. Prayuth's military government will announce election results by
May 9, officials said.

The delay is to avoid post-election turbulence before King Maha
Vajiralongkorn's May 4-6 coronation.

A new government should be installed by mid-2019.

"Can the winning party govern and maintain the current non-violent
situation, and will the army -- if it loses -- really let go of
power?" political analyst Tom Kruesopon said in an interview.

"I see nothing but more of the same after this election. This election
is just the transition election, until the people realize that the
entire system is badly broken and real changes must occur," Mr.
Kruesopon said.