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article imageAs elections loom, Thai leader gets cosy with old political clans

By Thanaporn PROMYAMYAI, Sally MAIRS (AFP)     May 7, 2018 in Politics

The sons of a convicted murderer, a rural "don" who has spun a fortune from football and gun-loving provincial bigwigs -- as elections near, Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha is cosying up to "influential figures", a group he vowed to expunge from politics with his coup four years ago.

Throughout his rule Prayut, the mercurial ex-general whose army seized power in May 2014, has maintained one key refrain: politicians and their cronies are the cause of the country's political instability.

But the 64-year-old is suddenly changing tune as he looks to complete a metamorphosis from dictator to elected leader at polls promised for 2019.

The retired general has been coy on formally announcing a run for office.

Yet in recent months he has been busily courting the political fiefs that dominate the country, specifically potential allies of his nemesis, the billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

On Monday Prayut arrived in Buriram, a northeastern province dominated by Newin Chidchob -- an ex-politician turned sports mogul whose shape-shifting alliances have made him a key political "kingmaker".

He was welcomed by a full house of some 30,000 in Buriram FC's "Thunder Castle" stadium -- an unprecedented reception for the junta leader, whose popularity is on the slide among the Bangkok middle class.

Many will interpret the hearty welcome as sign of a deal between Prayut and Newin, who steers his Bhumjaithai Party from behind the scenes and has secured the lucrative rights to host MotoGP from this year in his rural backwater.

Strutting across the field, microphone in hand, a jocular Newin urged crowds to cheer Prayut loudly to squeeze out cash from the government.

Thailand's junta leader speaks to a huge crowd during a rally in northeastern Buriram
Thailand's junta leader speaks to a huge crowd during a rally in northeastern Buriram

"The budget for your flood protection will be gone if your voice is not loud!" he said.

A relaxed Prayut laid out his vision for the country, while also denying he was in town for political reasons.

"I didn't come here to ask you to love me... It's fine if you don't love me, just don't hate me," he told the stadium.

Prayut rejects accusations he his on the campaign trail, with political activity banned by his regime.

But there are few doubts he is out to complete his mission of scuttling the Shinawatras' election machine.

The Shinawatra clan have won all general elections since 2001, relying on their popular appeal in the rural north and northeast.

Prayut toppled the government of Yingluck Shinatwara, who has now joined her brother Thaksin in self-exile after being convicted of criminal negligence.

Their Pheu Thai party is weakened without the siblings' star power and Prayut is seeking to overrun them at elections with the support of provincial bosses -- and the vote banks they carry.

"Prayut has become the ultimate hypocrite," said Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based expert on the kingdom's politics.

After endless politician-bashing, "now Prayut and the (junta) are using many of these same corrupt politicians to build a political party."

- 'Political mafia' -

What Newin might get for backing Prayut remains unknown. But his counterparts in eastern Chonburi province already appear to have been rewarded.

Two brothers from the Kunplome clan, who dominate Thailand's eastern seaboard, were made cabinet-level advisors in April.

Their family is headed by elderly Somchai, dubbed the "Godfather of Chonburi", who was released early from jail in December after serving a fraction of a 28-year sentence for masterminding the murder of a local politician.

Crowds gather at a football stadium in northeast Thailand to greet Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-O-C...
Crowds gather at a football stadium in northeast Thailand to greet Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, whose face is emblazoned on a billboard

Prayut has repeatedly denied any horsetrading is going on.

But his meetings continue to raise eyebrows, including a golf outing with another influential clique -- the Pheu Thai-linked Sasomsap brothers in Nakhon Pathom.

A few years ago they were targeted by a junta crackdown on "influential figures".

Police raids found scores of guns in raids at their homes, according to local media.

"Political mafia is a more appropriate term for these type of people," said Thai politics professor Titipol Phakdeewanich.

The families maintain control through business links, donations and other "generous deeds", Titipol added.

"Prayut understands how politics functions. If you want to win an election as a newcomer you have to collaborate with existing powers in provinces."

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