The job of "returning happiness" to Thailand has put Prayuth Chan-ocha in a foul mood.

In January, the irascible leader of the junta that seized power in May 2014 said he had resolved to "talk less, be less emotional and quarrel less with reporters." Yet this month he was again apologizing, through a spokesman, for flashes of anger at two press events. The cause of his ire was impertinent questioning about a proposed new constitution. His temper may only get worse.

Prayuth, a former general, last week reassured President Obama at a summit for Southeast Asian leaders in California that he is preparing Thailand for fresh elections. But first the junta wants to pass a new constitution that would keep the hands of elected politicians firmly tied.

Prayuth's coup suspended the previous constitution, itself drawn up during another period of military rule after an earlier coup that also unseated a democratic government, in 2006. A draft for a new constitution that was presented last year proved too illiberal even for lackeys who sit in the army's rubber-stamp councils. The generals ordered a rewrite. Their latest blueprint looks nearly as bad.

True, it abandons much-derided plans for an army-led "crisis panel," empowered to topple elected governments at will. But otherwise it reflects the army's view that popular politics is a form of corruption, and that bickering politicians are the source rather than a symptom of Thailand's deep social divisions. (The biggest one is between a wealthy, royalist establishment in Bangkok, the capital, and poorer, less deferential classes in the north and northeast.)

The new draft would produce weak coalition governments, presumably in order to erode the dominance of Thailand's most successful party, Pheu Thai, versions of which the army has twice kicked from power. The prime minister need not be an MP, a loophole that could allow soldiers to keep bossing elected politicians around.

New power will also flow to watchdogs such as the electoral commission, anticorruption outfit and courts. On the face of it, that looks good. But these bodies have traditionally reflected the interests of Thailand's moneyed elites. It is progress that the draft makes the constitutional court the final arbiter in times of crisis — that role had previously fallen to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now old and frail. But the change probably reflects fears among the Bangkok establishment that the next monarch, the crown prince, may go too easy on Pheu Thai and other perceived enemies.

All this has dismayed Thais of many stripes. Politicians note that Prayuth will retain his authority until the moment the next government is sworn in, perhaps allowing him to influence their election campaigns. They fret that more surprises may be stuffed into subsections that the drafters have yet to scribble (a process that may delay an election promised for mid-2017). Sensing revolt, the junta has started warning that critics of the draft will be hauled away for "attitude adjustment."

The government insists that the constitution will be put to a national referendum at the end of July. The election commission says it is already preparing plans for that ballot, an operation it has considered calling the "65 million Blooming Flowers" (forgetting, presumably, that a similarly named campaign in Mao Zedong's China ended in bloody repression). It wants penalties for people who misrepresent the draft in the media. Meanwhile, a general says cadets will be sent to polling stations to help people vote for the right outcome. It may be in vain: The few opinion polls suggest that Thais will throw the new draft out.

What would happen then is anyone's guess. Prayuth insists that a general election will take place in 2017 no matter what — though the junta's timetable for a return to elected government has shown a tendency to slip. Perhaps he will seek to resurrect a constitution from Thailand's past (he has 19 to choose from). Perhaps he will impose an electoral system of his own making. Meechai Ruchuphan, a lawyer who led the latest drafting panel, has warned that Thais who vote to abandon his council's creation might end up with rules they like even less.

Some wonder whether the draft is designed to fail, so that the junta can remain in power. The generals are presumed to want to be around to manage King Bhumibol's succession (he is 88). Noxious censorship laws even prevent the matter of the succession from being openly discussed — though it will be the most significant moment for the national polity in decades and seems likely to inflame the country's smoldering class wars.

Yet the longer the generals hang around, the more problems they will have to contend with. On Feb. 12, Yingluck Shinawatra, pushed out as prime minister just before the coup, invited foreign journalists to tour her vegetable garden — an outing seemingly designed to skirt the ban on overt politicking. She is probably hoping that foreign pressure on the junta will lessen her chances of a long jail term at the end of her show trial for corruption.

Perhaps more pressingly, the junta also finds itself caught up in a bitter dispute inside Thailand's powerful religious establishment over who should succeed the late patriarch of the Buddhist faith. Thousands of monks gathered near Bangkok on Feb. 15, urging the government to endorse their faction's favorite. There were scuffles with soldiers.

It is a febrile mood, and no end of conspiracy theories posit what a scheming junta intends to do next. Yet the debacle surrounding the constitution may hint at something more worrying still: that Thailand's self-chosen leaders have no real strategy at all.

Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.