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politics

Thailand on Track for Elections Next March, Official Says

  • Election time-line has changed several times since 2014 coup
  • The vote will come after nearly five years of military rule

Thailand is on track to hold elections by early March next year, senior lawmaker Somchai Swangkarn said in an interview.

Somchai, secretary to the whip of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly who sits on panels deciding election law, said he expected a ban on political campaigning to be lifted by August.

“We are quite confident that elections will take place at the end of February or early March,” Somchai, who’s also the military government’s whip, said on Friday.

Former army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power in Thailand in May 2014 after a period of political unrest, pledging to restore stability before bringing back representative government. But the time-line for the next general election has been pushed back repeatedly. Last October, Prayuth said the elections would be held by November this year.

Read more: Thailand’s Road to Election Keeps Getting Longer: QuickTake Q&A

The current stretch of military rule is one of the longest since the 1970s, in a country with a history of coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The next election will be conducted under a military-backed constitution, which critics say gives appointed soldiers, judges and bureaucrats the power to stifle elected politicians.

New parties are supposed to be able to register from Thursday, which has stoked expectations of an end to the prohibition on political activity.

Somchai said the ban remained in place because of fears of renewed clashes between rival political camps.

Parties linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, have won the past five elections, only to be unseated by the courts or the military. The discord reflects deep fissures in Thai society between urban royalists, known as the so-called yellow shirts, and Thaksin and his rural support base, the red shirts.

“Those who are very strong red or yellow shirts are the problem,” Somchai said, adding that the ban would be reviewed after local elections were held around June. If there were no significant outbreaks of conflict, then “around June to August we should see the first ban lifted,” he said.

Thaksin’s sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in the 2014 military coup, fled Thailand in August before being sentenced in absentia to five years in jail in a negligence case she said was politically motivated.

While a poll runs the risk of exposing underlying tensions, and putting the spotlight on the country’s history of elections followed by coups, some analysts appear sanguine.

Sentiment will improve mid-year, when a poll date is likely to be announced, according to Tim Leelahaphan, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Bangkok. 

He argues elections are widely seen as positive for the Thai economy, citing a survey by the bank showing that over 80 percent of corporate and institutional clients believe a vote will boost growth through higher campaign-related activity and spending.

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