Thai junta lifts ban on political campaigning

This handout picture taken and released by Royal Thai Government on 11 December, 2018 shows Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha taking a selfie with Miss Universe 2018 contestant Sophida Kanchanarin of Thailand after a meeting at the Government House in Bangkok. (Royal Thai Government / AFP Photo)

Thailand's junta on Tuesday lifted a four-year ban on political campaigning ahead of 2019 elections, prompting Thaksin Shinawatra - the exiled billionaire who sits at the heart of the kingdom's political rupture - to hail a "new hope" for the nation.

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 24 February.

"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.

In that time, Thai politics has been sharply polarised 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.

The military loathes Thaksin, the former cop turned telecoms tycoon who won a landslide election in 2001, and is hellbent 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 hand-picked upper house and the possibility of an appointed prime minister.

"I'd like to congratulate the Thai people as today is the start of a new hope we'll get freedom and equality back," Thaksin said in a rare Facebook post responding to the lifting of the campaigning ban.

He also called for the constitution to be changed in a post accompanied by a photo of him making the three-fingered salute from "The Hunger Games" movie franchise, an unofficial emblem of defiance of Thailand's ruling junta.

Time to vote

Junta chief Prayut meanwhile is widely tipped to make a bid for the premiership after elections, after years of insisting he was compelled by duty to seize power.

While the political ban muzzled rival parties, he has been criss-crossing the country offering economic handouts, photo opportunities and building alliances with local politicos.

A military aligned political party has built wide alliances, even scooping up defectors from rivals including Pheu Thai, the Shinawatra-backed party dumped from office in the 2014 coup.

On Tuesday a smiling Prayut posed for selfies with Miss Universe contestants visiting Bangkok for the finals.

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.

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, Thaksin's younger sister.

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.

But it is unclear how much electoral support the family and their parties will draw at the polls after years of being harried by the junta and the courts. - AFP