BANGKOK, Thailand -- If Thailand's U.S.-backed military government
allows an election next year, the junta leader and his supporters are
expected to dominate thanks to heavy censorship, an appointed Senate,
and restricted or self-exiled opposition politicians.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a bloodless 2014
coup when he was army commander, is widely perceived as manipulating
an extension of his prime ministry.

"Why are you so interested in me?" the often moody Mr. Prayuth asked
reporters who wanted to discuss expectations he would remain in power
after the election.

"I will decide when I will announce.  It's entirely up to me. What's
the point of exposing myself to criticism so soon?" he said on
September 19.

"The laws on the election of members of parliament and selection of
senators were announced in the Royal Gazette on September 12, 2018,
paving the way for an election between February and May 2019," said
New York-based Human Rights Watch.

" Thailand's military junta should immediately lift restrictions on
civil and political rights so that upcoming national elections can be
free and fair," Human Rights Watch said.

"Current laws, policies, and practices of the [junta's] ruling
National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in May 2014,
do not permit political parties to freely organize, express their
views, or campaign. As a result, Thailand does not yet have an
environment for free and fair elections," it said.

Mr. Prayuth could run as a candidate attracting voters impressed by
his hard-line rule which crushed political street violence and gained
U.S. President Donald Trump's support.

Or he could be reinstalled as prime minister by a squabbling hung
Parliament under a 2017 constitution he helped orchestrate.

National elections are for a 500-seat House of Representatives.

The junta will oversee the appointment of a 250-member Senate,
including six seats for the head of the army, navy, air force and
national police, plus the military's supreme commander and defense
permanent secretary.

The regime initially said it would permit elections in 2015, but
postponed them each year to 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Mr. Prayuth's main opponent remains the popularly elected, polarizing
and authoritarian former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup, in which Mr. Prayuth
participated, and became an international fugitive dodging a two-year
prison sentence for conflict of interest in a Bangkok real estate deal
involving his then-wife.

While abroad, the billionaire Mr. Thaksin boosted his sister Yingluck
Shinawatra to win a 2011 election and become prime minister.

She was ousted in 2014 for "criminal negligence" two weeks before Mr.
Prayuth's most recent coup.

Ms. Yingluck also fled overseas to avoid a five-year prison sentence
for "criminal negligence" after failing to stop corruption in her
administration's rice crop subsidies.

"There are some people who got rich from these two coups but there are
many more who suffered worse, and our beloved Thailand has been viewed
unfavorably by people around the world," Mr. Thaksin, 69, recently
posted on his Facebook page.

"Hasn't our country suffered enough?" Mr. Thaksin said.

"Thaksin and his legacies, his party, personality cult and populist
policy measures," are Mr. Prayuth's biggest threat, said Kasit
Piromya, former member of the Democrat Party which opposes Mr. Thaksin
and Ms. Yingluck.

"Prayuth and his allies have to be certain that they will have the
majority before the holding of the election. They will not go to the
election in order to lose...they could keep on postponing the election
date," Mr. Kasit said in an interview.

"The constitution and related laws are not democratic, so an election
in substance cannot be democratic," Mr. Kasit said.

When asked how democratic the poll would be, Tom Kruesopon, former
senior advisor to Ms. Yingluck's Pheu Thai ["For Thais"] Party,
replied in an interview:

"Less than U.S.A.'s, more than North Korea's."

Sensational new candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 39, is
wealthy but inexperienced and his Future Forward Party offers a
liberal, anti-junta stance.

Mr. Thanathorn "will win some seats, but their total lack of
understanding of the Thai political culture will undermine their
chance for real significance," Mr. Kruesopon said.

Two senior party members and Mr. Thanathorn, who is an auto parts
billionaire, face recent charges of violating the Computer Crime Act
for posting on Facebook statements about Mr. Prayuth which the junta
said are false.

The Act is often used to censor conversations on internet and can
punish violators with up to five years imprisonment plus fines.

"The use of the Computer Crime Act is used with the objective to
silence us, threaten us, to make politics of fear happen in this
country," Mr. Thanathorn said after being fingerprinted and questioned
by police on September 17.

Though he remains overseas, Mr. Thaksin's enemies -- including Mr.
Prayuth -- will not enjoy an easy victory.

"Prayuth seems to be the most likely candidate to lead the
military-backed Palang Pracharat Party. But he is not a popular
figure, despite military propaganda," Patrick Jory at Australia's
Queensland University School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry
said in an interview.

"The conservative Democrat Party, which provided the main political
opposition to Thaksin's parties since 2001, now looks weak and
divided. Their leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is
tainted not only by his role in the May 2010 killings, but also his
involvement in the 'whistle-blowing' protests that provided the
pretext for the 2014 coup," Mr. Jory said.

In 2010, Mr. Abhisit presided over a military crackdown against a
nine-week insurrection in Bangkok which resulted in the killing of 90
people -- mostly pro-election Red Shirt civilians who supported Mr.

Mr. Abhisit is also linked to anti-election, whistle-blowing
protesters in 2014 who crippled Ms. Yingluck's administration, paving
the way for then-Gen. Prayuth's putsch.

Today, younger "aspiring politicians" inside Mr. Abhisit's Democracy
Party want it to become a "New Democrat Party".

Asked about election issues, the New Generation Democrats replied in a
statement on Sept. 19:

"Almost 70 million Thais have been starved of their basic civil rights
and liberties since the military coup over 4 years ago.

"We are pushing forward a case for turning Thailand into a liberal
democracy," the reformers' statement said.

"We may face opposition from representatives of the current government
who believe in a paternalistic, centralized state with conservative
values that may delay or resist a return to full democracy," the New
Generation Democrats said.

Election competition currently appears to be between the Palang
Pracharat Party which supports Mr. Prayuth extending his prime
ministry, and Mr. Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party which has yet to announce
a leader based in Thailand.

"Only the Pheu Thai Party and the Future Forward Party have been very
clear that they are not going to support the military, whereas the
Democrat Party remains reluctant to absolutely shut down the
possibility of working with the military-coalition government after
the speculated election in 2019," Titipol Phakdeewanich, political
science faculty member at northeast Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani
University, said in an interview.

"The Pheu Thai Party remains largely popular amongst rural voters in
the North and Northeast, whilst the Future Forward Party is starting
to gain its support from young and virgin voters," Mr. Titipol said.