BANGKOK Thailand's main political parties on Monday voiced concern that a general election expected next year could be delayed yet again following comments made by the junta chief that they say shows he intends to hold on to power.
During his weekly televised speech on Friday, junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha questioned whether an election would install a government that practices "good governance".
Those concerns come three years after the military took power in a 2014 coup and ejected an elected civilian government, the twelfth coup since the creation of the constitutional monarchy in 1932.
They also come at a time when the military is more entrenched in government than under previous military regimes - something critics say will guarantee the military a permanent role in politics.
Chavalit Wichaisut, former deputy secretary-general of the Pheu Thai Party, whose government was ousted in the 2014 coup, told Reuters Prayuth could be "testing the waters".
"The junta should return the power to the people. There shouldn't be a reason to postpone the election," Chavalit said.
On Friday, Prayuth asked viewers four questions for which he said he wanted feedback, including whether it was right to hold an election "without considering the country's future".
"These are questions with political implications, showing that the prime minister isn't confident about an elected government," Ong-art Klampaiboon, secretary-general of the Democrat Party, told Reuters.
"I think it could be a preliminary signal of a plan to stay in power."
On Monday, a poll by independent Bangkok University, which surveyed 1,269 people, showed 52.8 percent of respondents would vote to elect Prayuth if he were to run for office.
Following an explosion at a Bangkok hospital last week, which the military blamed on anti-junta groups, Prayuth questioned whether the country was ready to hold an election.
The army seized power after months of unrest saying it needed to restore order and rid Thai politics of corruption and nepotism. The junta promised to enact political reforms.
But despite growing pressure at home and from abroad to restore democracy, a general election initially promised for 2015 has been repeatedly pushed back.
The timeline for an election is now tentatively set for late 2018.
On Monday, Prayuth said the election was still on track.
"I didn't ask whether we should hold an election," Prayuth said. "I was only asking what is to be done if the same kinds of people are elected again."
For more than a decade, Thailand has been locked in a bitter conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist-military establishment and supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and their Phea Thai Party.
Parties led by the Shinawatras have won Thailand's last three elections.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre)