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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha rides on a tractor at a farmer school in Suphan Buri province, Thailand September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha(reuters_tickers)
By Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) - In his dark suit, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha cut an incongruous figure guiding a rice tractor across a muddy paddy field in front of cameras and watching villagers.
The prime minister's latest photo opportunity won applause from farmers watching in straw hats and his visit to Suphan Buri on Monday brought a call from a local political bigwig for him to stay in power for another decade.
Political activities in Thailand have been suspended since Prayuth's 2014 coup, but Thai politicians are asking whether what looks like campaigning is exactly what it seems.
The trips to the countryside, a new Facebook account and a chorus of political groups offering support are raising suspicions of a plan to keep Prayuth in power even if long-promised elections happen next year.
"It's not beyond expectations that he is out campaigning in the provinces to prepare to become prime minister again," said Chaturon Chaisang, a leader of the Pheu Thai party, which under various names has won every election for a generation.
Since August, Prayuth has visited six provinces, including places traditionally considered important battlegrounds for elections. Such trips with his cabinet will now be monthly.
In the previous three years, he had only taken two such trips outside Bangkok.
"I am not here to make people love me, but I want everyone to love the country," Prayuth, 63, told farmers in Suphan Buri, 100 km (60 miles) north of Bangkok.
Said 60-year-old farmer Samruay Tongpratet: "If the prime minister can truly help the poor then he can stay as long as he wants."
Prayuth's office declined to comment on any plan to keep him in power.
CREMATION AND CORONATION
Politics will not resume until well after the cremation next month of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October, and the subsequent coronation of his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
In the meantime, Prayuth has the field to himself.
"That's why he needed to hold these mobile cabinet meetings in the provinces, act more like a politician, hold rallies, and meet the people," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, noting the signs that Prayuth wants to stay longer.
Last month, Prayuth set up a Facebook page with pictures of him walking with his arm around a farmer's shoulder and giving alms to monks. It now has nearly 11,000 likes.
A poll in June showed that 53 percent of Thais would like Prayuth to serve another term.
Although Thailand's economic growth lags other countries in Southeast Asia and dissent is strongly repressed, surveys show that Prayuth's backers welcome the stability since the coup.
Whether that calm survives electioneering is another question after over a decade of turmoil between colour-coded factions that Prayuth said he sought to end with his coup.
On one side is the 'yellow' Democrat Party, which is popular with middle-class voters and has strong support in Bangkok and parts of the south.
On the other side is the 'red' movement of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose parties appeal to poorer voters, particularly in the populous northeast.
Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was overthrown by Prayuth in the 2014 coup and last month fled Thailand ahead of a verdict in a corruption trial - eliminating a charismatic party figurehead who might also have rallied opposition to Prayuth.
'OUTSIDE PRIME MINISTER'
Although he cannot technically stand for election because he would have needed to resign by July, a new constitution drawn up at the junta's behest does offer him a route.
He could be chosen as an "outside prime minister" - foreseen under the constitution if the winning party fails to get enough votes for its candidate in the 500-member lower house of parliament.
In such a case, the upper house would also have a say - its 250 members will be picked by the military. Prayuth would still need support from at least half the lower house, however.
Although neither of Thailand's two main political parties has said it would endorse him, smaller players are mobilizing.
Paiboon Nititawan, a former member of a now-defunct reform council, has set up an office for a new People's Reform Party to back Prayuth.
Suchart Chantharachotikul, a classmate of Prayuth from military school, told Reuters he is coordinating smaller parties to form a grouping to back the junta leader.
"Prayuth's military government isn't perfect, but they took care of problems like unrest. It wouldn't be so strange if he stays on for another four years," Suchart said.
A composer of sentimental ballads, Prayuth has dropped hints in his music of a longer term political future. His latest song, "Bridge", repeats a message that he will stay as long as it takes to steer Thailand through troubled waters.
"My two hands won't let you go," says one refrain.
(Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Bill Tarrant)