Thailand ’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has joined a new party as he looks for ways to extend his eight-year rule despite term limits, signalling shifting alliances and a ramp up in political jockeying ahead of elections slated for May. On Monday, Prayuth became a member of the newly formed Ruamthai Sarngchart party, which has pledged to name the former army chief as its candidate for prime minister. The move completes his split with the military-backed Palang Pracharath party that backed his bid for the top job four years ago. “There’s work to be finished and that’s why I must step up to do this,” Prayuth said after signing up to become a member of Ruamthai, also known as the United Thai Nation party. “I’m here not because I want to stay but because Thailand has to carry on.” The former coup-leader is manoeuvring to stay in power despite a steady decline in his popularity and a constitutional term limit that allows him to stay as prime minister just two more years. He is counting on the support of the 250-member Senate, stacked with allies from the military establishment, who have until 2024 the power to vote alongside the Lower House to select the prime minister. In the 2019 election, the Senate kept at bay the opposition Pheu Thai party linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in an earlier coup and whose sister was later prime minister until the 2014 putsch led by Prayuth. “Shifting alliances is normal in Thai politics but it’s more intense this time around, as the electoral rules have changed significantly and the contest is centred around whether to keep Prayuth in power,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “After more than eight years of the military establishment, the stakes are higher now.” Thailand is expected to hold general elections in May with the 500-member House of Representatives set to complete its term on March 23. A slew of electoral changes, including a return to a two-ballot system and a drop in party-list lawmakers, will give larger political parties like Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai an upper hand. ‘One family’: Thailand ministers welcome Chinese tourists with flowers Prayuth went looking for a new political vehicle after Palang Pracharath signalled it would back its leader and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon for the top job. There was discontent within Palang Pracharath and the 16-party coalition it leads with much of this to do with Prayuth’s unpopularity and opinion polls showing Pheu Thai would bag the most seats in the elections. “Removing Prayuth from the equation will help Prawit put an end to faction wars within Palang Pracharath and open the door for him to broker deals with other parties more conveniently,” Yuttaporn said. “The two can’t ever be in conflict, because if that happens, it will be the end of the military’s grip on politics.” Still, the ruling party may have to depend on Prayuth and his new party to form a coalition to keep Pheu Thai from winning outright. This would be a repeat of the 2019 elections when Pheu Thai got the most seats but was thwarted by Palang Pracharath that hastily cobbled together a coalition that included the Bhumjaithai Party of Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and the Democrat Party. With electoral rules in favour of larger groups, some parties are poaching lawmakers to build their numbers and win seats. Bhumjaithai Party, best known for the cannabis decriminalisation policy , has emerged as a magnet for party hoppers, with about three dozen lawmakers quitting other groups in recent weeks to join it. Others are looking to merge with like-minded parties, though this may take time as politicians squabble over who becomes the new leader of the enlarged party and the prime minister candidate. For instance, Pheu Thai’s former chief strategist Sudarat Keyuraphan and Prayuth’s former economic tsar Somkid Jatusripitak have announced their new parties would become allies for now while merger talks are ongoing. Pheu Thai, which enjoys a strong lead in election surveys, has ruled out forming alliances as it looks to fend off speculation that it may join hands with Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai. The party wants to focus on securing a simple majority on its own. That’s not impossible given Pheu Thai counts on the support of the rural northeast that’s allowed it and other parties affiliated with the Shinawatra clan to win the most seats in Thai elections for over two decades. About 3 in 4 Thais think Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party should be in charge: poll Pheu Thai is already putting up campaign posters across the country. Most prominent is the face of Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who leads election surveys as the most preferred candidate though her party is yet to officially nominate her. Prayuth’s gamble may pay off. He retains support in the southern provinces and could still be favoured by the royalist establishment. He’s stepped up public engagements and was seen in traditional Thai clothing last week, planting rice paddy and giving autographs to supporters. “It’s quite predictable that the military will remain in power, through Prayuth or Prawit, because they have the Senate on their side, which is the most crucial factor,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.