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King Bhumibol's death could put Thailand's political stability, timeline for democracy at risk

Thailand's return to civilian rule could be delayed amid a year-long mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as the Southeast Asian state's military junta tries to maintain stability.

Thailand's military-led government will consolidate its power, push back elections to 2018 and keep political unrest in check after the death of the revered monarch, political analysts told CNBC.

"The armed forces will persevere as the dominant institution across the land," said Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs.

Longer-term, however, the loss of the world's longest reigning monarch — widely praised and perceived as a moderator and arbiter in often acrimonious and violent political disputes — may bring political tensions to the fore.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told CNBC's "The Rundown" that the monarchy was at the apex of Thailand's political system, regardless of which party held government.

"You could not envision Thailand without King Bhumibol, our charismatic king," Pavin said.

Seen as a unifying force in the politically-divided country that had been subject to some 20 coups - including unsuccessful ones - during his 70 years of reign, the king died in a Bangkok hospital on Thursday. He was 88.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor at the faculty of political science at Chulalongkorn University, explained that the power King Bhumibol wielded was a kind of "moral authority" born of acting with integrity for decades.

"This is an individual who worked hard in all corners of the country, doing public work in the countryside, up and down the country and with genuine effort and care for his people." -Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Associate Professor, Chulalongkorn University

Now, with a one-year mourning period announced, the timing of a general election, due to be the first since the most recently military coup in 2014, is under scrutiny.

Junta chief and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last said in August that a general election would be held in 2017. In the meantime, election laws have to be drafted and amendments added to the new constitution that was voted in on August 7.

"With all that work that is required to be done, a mourning period could conceivably interrupt that timeframe and potentially serve as a pretense for delay into 2018," Christian Lewis, an associate at Asia Eurasia, told CNBC's "Squawk Box".

That said, Lewis noted that the junta had introduced a mourning period that, even at one year, was on the lower side of many expectations, which suggested that it was committed to the timeline and may try to push elections through in 2017.

Pavin said the royal succession was also a factor to consider in the timing of elections.

"The palace, together with the military government have to ensure that the royal transition, which is happening right now, would be smooth," the Kyoto University professor said. "If it's smooth, then maybe we could see election as planned."

Thailand is in national mourning after the death of its beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Piti A Sahakorn | LightRocket | Getty Images
Thailand is in national mourning after the death of its beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the designated heir, although the thrice-divorced prince has a controversial reputation due to his colorful private life, but Lewis said the junta would likely try to douse concerns.

"The government has vested interest at this stage in promoting his image and certainly his reputation as well so that the public ultimately supports him," Lewis said.

Crucially, the Crown Prince must prove himself to be as adept a peace-maker as his late father.

Some fear political fault lines may deepen, possibly even paving the way for the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into Thai politics.

"The problem here is that the military believes that what has in the past at least been quite a close relationship between Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn could tempt the latter into granting the former a royal pardon, something which is clearly anathema to Thailand's elite," warned political analyst Alastair Newton of Alavan Independent.

"The death of Bhumibol and the accession of Vajiralongkorn is yet another blow to stability in an already inherently highly unstable society."

Alongside the anxious Thai populace were jittery investors, with the Thai markets volatile in the past week as the king's health deteriorated.

"The Thai king has become so important for political stability, the passing of the king would cause an impact in the confidence of the Thai economy of investors," Pavin explained.

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