2016 could be a rocky year for Thailand PM Prayut

Prime minister bracing himself for a year likely to pose significant challenges.

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has scraped through 2015, thanks largely to special powers his government commands, and lingering fears of "what might have been" - be it uncontrolled political violence or a return to "fake democracy".

But even these two factors must be stretched to their limit if he is to successfully endure 2016. The general is not going through a normal "incumbent" syndrome that often hits ordinary political leaders.

A coup leader and much-criticised flag-bearer of reform, he has been under tougher-than-usual scrutiny, which may increase exponentially next year.

The Rajabhakti Park controversy is capping what has been a largely troublesome year for Prayut. Since last January, contentious issues involving foreign refugees have undermined his government's image on human rights, and some policies, although eventually aborted or toned down, were decried as stemming from an autocratic mentality.

His relationships with Western governments remain stalled and even many domestic supporters have begun to question several things, not least after the military-installed legislative appointees shot down a charter blueprint worked out under his regime. The Erawan Shrine blast earned him some sympathy, but Prayut would be very ill-advised to translate the "Stronger together" message, prevalent after the terrorist bombings, as a green-light for an indeterminate stay.

Next year will see the culmination of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's trial for alleged corruption, as well as the new constitutional drafting process. Both are potentially political dynamite.

To add to that, the Thai economy is unlikely to bounce back next year and Thailand's neighbours will enter the era of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) better prepared than the Kingdom.

Through all this, Prayut's post-coup pledge that "it [the suspension of democracy] won't take long" will be irking everyone including himself.

Prayut's temperament is also a big question. Given the high possibility that next year will be a lot harder than this one, critics are rubbing their hands and supporters are holding their breath. His always-controversial remarks, however, may pale in comparison with other developments that many fear could materialise.

Government politics can be a slippery slope, and administrations that originate from the seizure of power are more prone to switch to full-scale, self-protection mode. In short, the urge to tighten control will get stronger and stronger.

The "reform before election" campaign, which benefits Prayut's political status, has received some support in 2015 despite strong resistance by its opponents. But if he fails to deliver anything substantial in 2016, the "election now" movement could become formidable.

Prayut may find himself caught between hardcore supporters, who don't want the return of the "Thaksin regime", and those determined to have democracy settle all of Thailand's problems.

Ironically, what could protect Prayut is his sincere demonstration that he doesn't need to be protected. Prayut's proclaimed mission, taunted by many, is his own self-sacrifice as he leads Thailand towards genuine reform. A charter draft, deemed central to the national reform project, was killed in a contentious manner in 2015, but further turmoil was pre-empted, just barely, by claims that the country was not ready for an election.

A further delay, however, will not be greeted by a similar uneasy silence.

All in all, 2016 could make 2015 feel like a stroll in the park as far as Prayut is con?cerned. Much evidence suggests that he anticipated this when he staged the coup against the Yingluck administration.

But just because he knew what would happen doesn't necessarily mean he will successfully cope with it. The coup took him into uncharted waters, and 2016 could be their most treacherous. Only true patriotism, sincerity and selflessness can get him through the year.