Thai politicians are gearing up for a possible general election next year, even though Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insists his military-backed coalition government will complete its four-year term in 2023.
Key indicators include a rift within the ruling Palang Pracharath Party as well as a constitutional amendment that introduced electoral changes favoring Thailand's larger parties.
In September, Prayut sacked two ministers shortly after surviving a censure debate in parliament against him and some Cabinet members.
Political sources said the premier found that the two ministers had conspired to oust him alone in the no-confidence debate. Despite a degree of reconciliation in the party, conflict remains.
Trakoon Meechai, an associate professor of Chulalongkorn University's Political Science Faculty, told Kyodo News that the chance of the government completing its four-year-term is slim if Prayut cannot withstand the political pressure, with the situation aggravated by the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
"If the country faces a severe resurgence of COVID-19, the premier may not be able to hold onto power. He could face replacement or decide to dissolve the lower house," he said.
The Prayut-led administration has faced criticism over its pandemic management.
Although the election could be a way to relieve political tension in Thailand, the path ahead is smooth neither for Prayut nor his political rivals.
Those rivals include the largest opposition Pheu Thai Party, which consists of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and is strong in rural areas, and the Move Forward Party, which also opposes military influence in politics and is mainly supported by the younger generation.
Pheu Thai got the greatest number of lower house seats in the 2019 general election but Palang Pracharath, which won the popular vote, was able to form a coalition government.
Prayut, a retired army general who initially came to power in a 2014 military coup, was subsequently elected prime minister by the 500-member House of Representatives and almost every member of the junta-appointed, 250-seat Senate.
In the 2019 election, the lower house members were elected using a form of mixed-member proportional representation, in which voters cast a single vote. This and other changes introduced by the military-backed 2017 Constitution were widely viewed as designed to handicap anti-junta parties like Pheu Thai.
Under the revised election system, however, the two-ballot system has been restored, with voters electing candidates from single-seat constituencies and casting a second ballot for a political party.
Whereas last time there were 350 constituency seats and 150 party-list seats up for grabs, the former has been increased to 400 and the latter reduced to 100.
Pheu Thai, which prior to 2019 had won every election since 2001 if its precursor parties are counted, has resolved to make every effort to win the next election too.
One obstacle the populist party faces is that the lower house vote for prime minister would take place in a joint session with the Senate, whose military-appointed members' term lasts until 2024.
Efforts in the legislature to further amend the Constitution to reform the Senate and to restructure the Constitutional Court and key state agencies have so far failed.
To convince the party's lawmakers and supporters on this matter, Thaksin recently installed his youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra to a position of influence in Pheu Thai to cement the dominance of the Shinawatra dynasty.
Trakoon interpreted this as Thaksin resting his hope in the election and convincing Pheu Thai lawmakers to stay with the party with his daughter, who has been tipped as a future prime ministerial candidate, as a key part of its political machine.
Under the new system, small and midsize parties such as Move Forward will be struggling.
However, there is a chance that Move Forward would join a coalition if Pheu Thai wins the election with insufficient support to form a government on its own.
Some young voters have voiced support for such inter-party cooperation after the next election after coming to the realization that street rallies are not enough to help them achieve their goals of overhauling the charter and reforming the monarchy.
Naenon, a 19-year-old-student from Mahidol University whose family name is being withheld, said he does not want the Prayut-led government to return, citing its poor performance in administration.
He said Pheu Thai is capable of running the country in view of its proven past performance, even though a large number of younger Thais including him support Move Forward.
Prawravee Suwantawit, 20, a student of Thammasat University, also wishes to see Pheu Thai in power again considering its experience and the prospect of opening doors for the younger generation.
"I think Pheu Thai is one of the good choices to fix the country's problems, especially the economy," she said, adding that Move Forward still lacks experience to run the country alone.
On another hand, legal scholar Jade Donavanik saw Prayut would finish his term if the government can still handle both the political movement and the pandemic impact. Jade said only political accidents such as the departure of coalition parties or a coup could bring him down, but it is unlikely.
However, he thought that it is not easy for Prayut to secure a second term in the next election.
"Aside from being in power for too long since seizing power, Gen. Prayut has yet made any significant progress in reforming the country as promised," he said.
Regarding the student movement, Jade, who is also former adviser to the Constitution Drafting Committee, said the pro-democracy groups have been weakened by law enforcement authorities and -- in the court of public opinion -- violence including burning public properties at recent rallies in Bangkok.
He said the groups made a good start in calling for changes in politics and the constitutional monarchy, but later turned the main focus to the monarchy using ill-mannered methods.
Move Forward, the student groups and their allies have been making parallel movements in and outside the parliament to reform key establishments, including the monarchy, but have little to show for their efforts. Key leaders are being detained on various charges, including under the strict lese majeste law.
Foreseeing Thai political developments, the political academic Trakoon said all sides have to adjust themselves to the changes and avoid fomenting hatred of their opponents or seeking to destroy them.
(Raveebhorn Chaiprapa contributed to this story)