Thai junta lifts ban on political campaigning ahead of 2019 elections

Bangkok (AFP) –


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 kinds, as it muzzled opposition in a country notorious for its rowdy -- and often deadly -- street politics.

But the ban was officially lifted on Tuesday, with polls expected on February 24.

"Political parties should be able to campaign to present their policies," an order in palace mouthpiece the Royal Gazette said.

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

But the junta still retains tools to silence its critics including arbitrary detention, and police will need to be informed of any political gatherings, according to legal experts.

"It's to be seen how far the authorities will use this bill to let people rally at certain 'restricted' places like at the Government House or near the palace," said Anon Chawalawan, of legal monitoring group iLaw.

Human rights lawyer Pawinee Chumsri welcomed lifting the ban but urged all politically motivated charges levelled under the years of junta rule to be dropped.

"I think all cases should be dismissed because the laws are no more," Pawinee told AFP.

- Time to vote -

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

But a promised return to elections has repeatedly slipped, allowing the junta to carve out its own political party and 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.

Analysts say this time the military and its backers have taken no chances in their efforts to ensure the Shinawatra clan cannot return to power.

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

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 criss-crossed the country offering economic handouts and building alliances with local politicos.

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, welcomed the easing of the ban.

"It should have been done before... but it creates an atmosphere that there will be elections," he said, ending years of uncertainty.