BANGKOK - Thailand's pro-military government has little to fear for now from the sharp shift in tactics by a leading opposition party that called thousands of its supporters into the streets over the weekend to demand democratic reforms, analysts say.
That could change, though, if the government's crackdown on critics picks up and the economy continues to stutter, some of them warned. The Bank of Thailand clipped its growth forecast in gross domestic product for 2020 from 3.3% to 2.8% earlier this week.
Saturday saw a rally in the heart of Bangkok's shopping district estimated by some participants to have attracted a crowd of at least 5,000. The Future Forward party, which called for the rally the day before, claims the turnout was twice that. Either way, it was the largest protest Thailand has seen since a military coup in 2014.
Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit told a cheering crowd that the gathering was "just the beginning," a "test run" for bigger protests to come starting next month.
"Protesters are unlikely to follow past patterns of staying in the streets for days and weeks but will be more amorphous," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who lectures on Thai politics at Chulalongkorn University.
"The government, with military backing and help from other agencies, can withstand. But what undermines government longevity are economic doldrums in conjunction with general disenchantment with abuse of power," he said.
Return to the junta
Critics see the government, installed in a tainted general election in March that ended five years of military rule, as little more than a rerun of the junta it replaced.
However, given the military's continued popularity among older Thais, a government at the helm of a powerful state propaganda machine, and the threat of arrest for joining unsanctioned rallies like Saturday's, the opposition will struggle to muster crowds much larger than the weekend's, said Wanwichit Boonprong, an assistant professor of political science at Rangsit University.
"It's not the right time to expand [to] bigger protest," he said.
Future Forward is already under a barrage of legal challenges the party and its supporters believe to be politically motivated. Last month, the Constitutional Court disqualified Thanathorn from the National Assembly, Thailand's parliament, for owning shares in a media company while running for office. Future Forward itself is facing dissolution over a loan Thanathorn, an auto parts billionaire, extended his young party to see it through the campaign.
Pandit Chanrochanakit, an assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn, said he also saw the new push for protests posing little threat to the government for the time being.
He said, though, that they could snowball if the government reacted to the challenge with an increasingly heavy hand.
"It depends on the situation," he said. "If the government responds in a way that cannot satisfy the public, that all the cases will be conducted with fair[ness] and justice ... people would come out more," he said.
He said the lawsuits police have filed against Thanathorn for organizing Saturday's rally without official permission proved that the government was already nervous.
Limiting the military’s influence
Thanathorn hinted at the protests months ago. He told VOA in July that he saw no way to pressure the government into constitutional amendments that would limit the military's influence — a core goal of the party — without them.
"Maybe not now, but one way or another. Eventually, if you want to amend the Constitution, if we are going to change it, partly or wholly, there must be rallies," he said at the time.
The upstart opposition Future Forward finished a strong third in the March polls on a platform of driving Thailand's powerful military out of politics, and Peter Mumford, head of Southeast Asia coverage for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, believes the opposition is playing the long game, hoping to best the military's proxy parties in future votes.
"I think the opposition parties, including [Future Forward], are not looking to instigate mass social unrest. They recognize disruptive protests would be counterproductive to their long-term goals as they would most likely trigger a harsh crackdown or another coup," he said.
"The risk, though, is whether events get out of control."