Thai opposition urges junta to lift politics ban as poll looms
The toppled Thai opposition on Thursday called on the ruling junta to lift the ban on political activities as the countdown begins for the kingdom's first election since a 2014 coup.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn endorsed two bills on Wednesday that clear the bureaucratic hurdles to a poll, which has been promised and delayed for years by the junta. An election is required to take place by May.
Junta critics want to hold political gatherings, which have been banned since a coup four years ago toppled the Puea Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's first female premier.
"We demand for the junta to lift the political activities ban as soon as possible," Pichai Naripthaphan, an ex-minister in Yingluck's cabinet, told AFP.
"As the country heads to an election, we need to create a good atmosphere so that people can express their opinions."
Senior junta figures have floated a February 24 poll date.
Pichai said that date is now increasingly likely, and cautioned the National Council for Peace Order (NCPO) -- the formal name for the junta -- against delaying it.
"If the NCPO postpones it again, there will be local and international pressure," he said.
Puea Thai is affiliated to the Shinawatra clan, a powerful and wealthy political family whose parties and proxies have won every Thai general election since 2001.
But coups and court rulings have toppled their governments, pushing Yingluck -- and her older brother Thaksin, the family patron -- into self-exile to avoid jail terms in Thailand.
US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies said in a statement Thursday that the endorsement of the two bills to move towards an election next year was a "positive step".
The US hopes the people of Thailand "can participate fully in the political life of their country", Davies said.
That includes being able to have "open political debate, freedom of speech, assembly and the media".
With the ban on politics still in place, junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha has spent months positioning himself for a potential run at the next election.
Despite insisting he has no interest in politics -- only in maintaining peace and order -- the gruff former general is expected to front an army-aligned party in the next election.
For months he has criss-crossed the country promising economic development, wooing local politicians with promised investment and showing his softer side to the electorate with endless photo opportunities.
On Thursday he hosted Japanese girl pop sensation "AKB48" at Government House, waving a pink day-glo stick to one of their smash hits and posing for photos.
Flanked by a royalist, conservative Bangkok-centric establishment, Thailand's military loathes the Shinawatras, accusing them of winning the hearts of the electorate with a toxic form of populist politics.
But junta critics say the army upended Thailand's fragile democracy to ensure its role is embedded in the kingdom's political future.
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