Thai junta lifts ban on election campaigning

Pheu Thai party legal head Chusak Sirinul, right, speaks to a Thai police officer, left, during an attempt to stop the press conference as party officials look on at the party headquarters in Bangkok in this May 17, 2018 file photo. — AFP

BANGKOK — Thailand’s junta on Tuesday lifted a ban on political campaigning ahead of 2019 elections, more than four years after the restriction was imposed following the kingdom’s latest coup.

One of the military’s first acts after seizing power in May 2014 was to outlaw political activity of all kind, as it muzzled opposition in a country notorious for its rowdy — and often deadly — street politics.

But the ban was officially lifted on Tuesday, prompting the Election Commission to confirm an expected poll date of Feb. 24.

“Political parties should be able to campaign to present their policies,” according to an order signed by junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha and published by palace mouthpiece the Royal Gazette.

The junta “has decided to amend or abolish the laws” which could inhibit campaigns before elections, it said.

Thailand’s rulers began easing restrictions in September, allowing political parties to recruit new members and elect leaders. But campaigns and street rallies remained banned.

Tuesday’s order raises the prospect of a return to Thailand’s rambunctious politics and the potential for street rallies that have defined much of the turbulent last decade of Thai politics.

Scores have died in street protests between competing factions over the past decade, as politics sharply polarized between supporters of the powerful Shinawatra clan — popular in the poor, populous north and northeast — and the royalist, conservative Bangkok-centric elite backed by the army.

Analysts say this time the military and its backers are hell-bent on blocking the Shinawatra clan from returning to power.

A new charter embeds government policy for the next 20 years, dilutes the number of elected parliamentary seats available and introduces a handpicked upper house and the possibility of an appointed prime minister.

Prayut, a former army chief, is widely tipped to make a bid for the premiership after elections.

Despite lifting the campaigning ban, the junta still retains tools to silence its critics including arbitrary detention, according to legal experts.

“It’s to be seen how far the authorities will let people rally at certain ‘restricted’ places like at the Government House or near the palace,” said Anon Chawalawan, of legal monitoring group iLaw.

Politicians of across the divides welcomed the easing of the ban.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an arch rival to the Shinawatras whose conservative Democrat party has not won a Thai election in over two decades, said it “should have been done before”.

Thailand’s junta says it was forced to seize power in 2014 to restore order after months of street protests paralyzed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

But a promised return to elections has repeatedly slipped, allowing the junta to woo defectors from rivals including Pheu Thai, Thailand’s biggest party which it dumped from office with its coup.

Pheu Thai is loyal to Yingluck, premier until shortly before the coup, and her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial billionaire ex-prime minister who sits at the heart of the kingdom’s political schism.

The siblings both live in self-exile to avoid jail over convictions in Thailand.

Parties loyal to the Shinawatra clan have won every Thai general election since 2001, despite being hit by two coups and the removal of three prime ministers by pro-establishment courts.

After years insisting he was compelled by duty to seize power, junta leader and premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha is flirting with a run for top office after the elections.

He has crisscrossed the country offering economic handouts, photo opportunities and building alliances with local politicos. — AFP