Since Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in Thailand in 2001, every party aligned with the ousted leader has won every election held in the country.

However, in its determination to dominate next year’s general election, the junta-ruled government may be now luring high-profile members of the tycoon’s Pheu Thai party to its side while banning meetings of its political rivals. The defection of Pheu Thai MPs has the party facing some of its most difficult days yet.

The move is led by the so-called Sam Mitr (“Three Allies”) group, reportedly formed by at least two former Pheu Thai ministers who are trying to get Thaksin’s supporters to join a recently established pro-government party, the Phalang Pracharat.

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Thailand has been ruled by a military junta since May 2014 when the army toppled a Pheu Thai government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck.

However, leaders insist the Pheu Thai Party is not in crisis and that numbers have been exaggerated. “[The number of MPs] that have defected is not a majority and most of them are former members of the party,” says Chusak Sirinil, legal adviser of the Pheu Thai, adding “the problem is bigger in some provinces” like in Loei and Ubon Ratchathani.

Coincidentally, members of the cabinet, along with current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, recently visited the provinces of Ubon Ratchathani and Amnat Charoen, both Pheu Thai strongholds, and announced several development projects in the region. “I’m sure that their activity is political,” Chusak says. “They get the advantage of power.” Last week, Thaksin sent a message to his supporters from Hong Kong to encourage them to keep fighting in the “war for democracy”.

“If we keep fighting, we won’t lose. We lose only when we die or when we give up.”

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However, defections are not the only challenge that the Pheu Thai Party faces in a time when the election race is gaining momentum. The government has promised to hold polls in the first half of next year, after delaying the vote several times. “This is the most serious promise [yet] about an election time frame,” says Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thailand researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The junta is now finishing a legal framework that will ensure the military controls the process.

The new constitution, drafted by the military and approved in a referendum in August 2016, establishes a new proportional representation system that will make it harder for any party to win a majority of seats in parliament. The constitution also establishes a fully appointed senate that will have a key role in choosing the next prime minister, while the election commission – also appointed – will oversee the process. In this legal context, Prayuth would not even need to run for election to retain his position and could be chosen as prime minister if a party backs him. “The Pheu Thai might win the elections but the margin will not be enough [because] the Pheu Thai will have to compete with the 250 senators,” Sunai says.

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According to a recent poll carried out by the National Institute for Development Administration (NIDA), a graduate university in Bangkok, Prayuth is the preferred candidate to become the next prime minister, with the support of more than 31 per cent of those polled, followed by Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan of the Pheu Thai Party, who had slightly less than 15 per cent. Nevertheless, more than 31 per cent of respondents said the Pheu Thai should form the core of the new government, followed by the Palang Pracharat Party with nearly 22 per cent.

NIDA, however, is under government control and “they have never explained their methodology”, Sunai says.

A junta-imposed restriction that prohibits public gatherings of more than five people without official approval effectively means political parties can’t prepare for elections. “There is a discrimination between the new political parties [that can] do anything, and the old parties, who can do nothing,” Chusak says, adding the biggest problem for the Pheu Thai Party is that it “cannot hold meetings with members in the provinces”.

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Based on these restrictions, the junta, also known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took legal action against the Pheu Thai Party in May for a press conference in which it criticised the government’s performance. Chusak and two other members of the party who held the conference are now being investigated for sedition.

The government also requested two weeks ago the extradition of Pheu Thai Party member and former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from the United Kingdom, where she is believed to have been living since she fled Thailand last year to avoid a sentence for negligence in managing public funds.

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The strict environment also affects other political parties, says Yingcheep Atchanont, project manager at iLaw, a monitoring group on legal issues. “If NCPO does not allow them to have meetings, they probably won’t be able to comply with everything on time.”

The NCPO has also pressed charges against the new Future Forward Party that has gained popularity on social media. It is accused of distorting facts and affecting the NCPO’s reputation.

Activists are raising questions about the freedom and fairness of the election and its real meaning. “International legitimacy is important for Thailand, but this requires more than the appearance of democratic elections,” says Kingsley Abbott, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists.

“There is no indication that the upcoming election can be considered a genuine exercise of democratic vote. … It will be a token election, a show,” Sunai says.

Most observers agree the restrictions on political activities will probably be lifted before the elections, but they fear it will be too late or the junta will enforce other rules to control the process, such as laws criminalising the spread of “inaccurate information” that were imposed during the referendum to approve the constitution. Other laws that erode freedom of expression and that were in place before the military government took power will probably remain, such as one that levies prison sentences of up to 15 years for “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”.

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According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 162 individuals were prosecuted for lèse-majesté in the past four years, and another 92 were charged with sedition, an offence that is now under the jurisdiction of military courts and “has become one of the most used tools of the NCPO to restrict freedom of expression”.

However, despite the restrictions, voters who contemplate boycotting the election may do more harm than good, says Yingcheep. “I think it is better to play the elections under their rules. There will be more chances for us to return to democracy, maybe not in the next five or 10 years, but in the future.”