Bangkok — Thailand's former military ruler seems well on the way back to power -- but this time by way of the ballot box, rather than by coup. Retired Army Gen. Kriangsak Chamanan, who was prime minister for 27 months in 1977-80, has just acquired a seat in the national parliament. He handsomely won a by-election at Roi-et in the northest part of the country.
Before entering the race, the 63-year-old general formed his own political party, the National Democracy Party, and declared his commitment to democracy.
The general has admitted that he had participated in four separate military coups d'etat against governments of the day. But he now says he has reached the conclusion that coups have hindered Thailand's progress. He vows never again to involve himself in attempts to overthrow a government by force.
"I want to be one who helps promote the kind of democcracy we all want," he said.
In the campaign he revealed unsuspected talents in winning the hearts and minds, and the votes, of the people. He fought a folksy but costly campaign, visiting the humblest houses of rice-field workers, vendors at market stalls in the town, offices and homes of small businessmen and rich merchants.
His personality and his prestige as a former prime minister and supreme military commander overwhelmed the 13 other candidates. He polled nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival.
afterward, General Kriangsak admitted that he had found becoming a member of parliament more difficult then becoming prime minister.
Two days after the election a photograph of him embracing on of Thailand's former military dictators, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, aroused doubts about his conversion to democracy. Kriangsak had plotted more than one coup with Thanom, who ruled Thailand at the head of a military junta from 1963 to 1973.
His critics are saying that Kriangsak's decision to run in an election for the first time in his life has nothing to do with democracy. It was, they say, the only way for him to reenter the political arena, as he had lost his military power base after he retired from the Army.
With his election, however, Kriangsak has acquired an impressive power base in parliament, where he already has at least 70 supporters in the elected House of Representatives and perhaps the support of half the appointed Senate.
His party is growing almost daily as more MPs switch to support Kriangsak. By the time parliament reassembles next month for the final debate on the crucial budget bill, Kriangsak could be commanding a majority in parliament.
And although he lost his direct grasp on military power with his retirement, he can still count on significant support from the Army. Among his supporters are middle-ranking officers known as the "young turks" who were involved in last April's abortive coup against Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda.
General Prem has already moved to buttress his position in the aftermath of Kriangsak's victory. By royal decree the prime minister appointed his trusted deputy, Gen. Prayuth Charumanee, to take over as his successor in the top Army post of commander in chief when he retires from that job Aug. 26. Gen. Prem is expected to soon bolster his political grip with other important military appointments.
How Kriangsak will use his new strength is now the biggest question mark in Thai politics. The general says cryptically that his policy is to support a good government.
Few politicians or observers believe he is seeking an early confrontation with General Prem. Instead he is likely to delay his challenge until the general election in 18 months.
But government's continuing failure to tackle increasing economic and development problems may force General Kriangsak into an earlier parliamentary battle, which could bring defeat for General Prem and his government.
Although General Kriangsak does not have the same close relations with the monarchy as does General Prem, that might not prevent him from becoming prime minister again.
There are some other generals, though, who may try to stop General Kriangsak. They feel they should get the job themselves as a matter of course, as Kriangsak himself did when he reached the top of the Army.