When exactly is Thailand's next election due now?

Finance Minister Sommai Phasi triggered a mini-storm last week when he was quoted by the BBC as saying that the next election might not happen until the middle of 2016. "The timeline is more like 18 months than one year," he was quoted as saying.

The following day, reporters posed the election question to Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha who insisted there was no change in the original road map. The finance minister was only giving his own interpretation of the timing for the next polls, the PMĀ said.

Then came Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam's version. He voiced the opinion that elections could be held in February of 2016.

That's a compromise: Somewhere between 12 and 18 months.

Dr Wissanu's estimate is based on the expectation that the new constitution draft will be wrapped up by September next year.

"But having the charter ready doesn't mean polls could then take place instantly. It would take about three months to draw up and pass organic laws related to the constitution. Elections, then, I think, could be held in February of 2016."

There is another "if", though. That schedule can be followed only if there isn't a referendum on the charter draft. If public endorsement is sought, a three-month process would be required.

If that's the case, Finance Minister Sommai's estimate would be right - it would be the middle of 2016 before polls could be organised.

The question would then be: Will there be a referendum on the draft constitution before the election date is set? That question has yet to be answered. And even the premier isn't offering any hints.

Then comes the next question: Who would decide whether a referendum is needed or not? Officially, that would fall under the purview of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). But then, that isn't conclusive either.

That's because under the current scheme of things, the National Reform Council (NRC) would have the final say on whether to accept or reject the constitution draft passed by the NLA. By extension, that could mean that the NRC would actually be calling the shots on this issue.

The critical question, however, is how much influence does the ruling junta want to exercise over the shape, form and substance of the new constitution.

PM Prayut has repeatedly confirmed that he won't dictate the content of the new charter - and that the NLA, NRC as well as the Constitution Drafting Committee headed by Borwornsak Uwanno would have total freedom to write a constitution that serves the people well.

"There definitely is not a pre-set blueprint for the new constitution," Wissanu insisted last week in a public lecture. He said he had consulted both Minister Sommai and Borwornsak on the two most controversial issues of the day: Why 18 months before elections? And is there a "blueprint" hidden somewhere for the charter writers to follow?

The answers to both questions, the deputy premier for legal affairs reported, were clearly in line with what the Big Boss has said all along: Elections will follow the original timeline (except that Sommai said he had factored in a possible referendum) and there is no set guideline from the top brass to follow in writing the new rules of the political game.

So, things should run more or less along the lines of the original script?

Not necessarily. "External factors" and "extraordinary circumstances" may still be cited as reasons that wreak havoc on the whole plan. To ascertain what those "unforeseen accidents" may be, we must closely follow what Cabinet members in charge of security issues have to say in the next few months.

Some of the keywords to look out for: "Political undercurrents" and "activities that undermine national reconciliation or that threaten national security".

For now, though, the theme is "returning happiness" to the people. And any undue delay to the democratic process would certainly make a large number of people "unhappy".