BANGKOK (Reuters) - A general election in Thailand could come in July 2017 and not much sooner, despite efforts by the military government to hasten the process, the prime minister said on Wednesday.
The ever-shifting timeframe for Thailand's return to democracy after a May 2014 coup has been delayed a year by the acrimonious rejection of a new constitution 10 days ago by the junta-appointed National Reform Council (NRC).
"The next general election could be organized around July 2017," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters. "It would not be much earlier than this, though the government has tried to speed up all the work."
The hot-tempered general has been irked by opponents' claims that he is clinging to power and his tolerance of criticism has been severely tested of late.
Prayuth carried out the military's second overthrow in a decade of an elected government led by the billionaire Shinawatra family.
He has portrayed himself as a reluctant leader who intervened amid street protests and political paralysis to prevent a descent into chaos.
Prayuth appeared to rule himself out of the running to be premier after the election, and was asked on Wednesday if anyone had requested he stay on.
"Nobody can make me. I know what I can do. If we can get it done today, it's done," he said, of his reform program.
"If not, let somebody else do it."
Prayuth is a heavyweight in a staunchly royalist military faction with strong ties to Thailand's conservative establishment, an old-money oligarchy riled by the electoral rise of the Shinawatras and their capitalist political clique.
Asked what would happen if a Shinawatra-backed party were re-elected, Prayuth said, "Nothing to do with me."
With the drafting of a new charter back to square one, Prayuth is on track to become Thailand's longest-ruling strongman since the 1970s.
The NRC's torpedoing of the junta's constitution has fueled debate about whether it was orchestrated to prolong military rule and dodge a possible loss of legitimacy at a referendum that had been scheduled for January 2016. Of the council's 30 military members, 27 voted against it.
(Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)