BANGKOK: Thailand will hold a general election on Mar 24, authorities said on Wednesday (Jan 23), the first national poll since a 2014 coup knocked out the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
The military has since rewritten the constitution, muzzled dissent and appointed military allies across the bureaucracy in a bid to scratch the Shinawatra clan from the Thai political scene and embed its own influence in the country's future.
"March 24 will be the election day," an Election Commission official told reporters, hours after the publication of a decree signed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn empowered the EC to give a date.
The military government has pushed back the election several times for various reasons after overthrowing Yingluck's government in 2014, citing the need for peace and order after months of street protests.
In a statement, the Office of the Prime Minister said it would be inappropriate for election events to "unnecessarily coincide or overlap with the scheduling of the Coronation Ceremony or other annual Royal Ceremonies".
It also said the new date would not be "too late to the extent that such a delay will have detrimental effects on the country and the Thai people".
Under the law, the Election Commission has to endorse winning members of parliament within 60 days of a vote, and parliament must convene within 15 days of the results and the King will preside over the opening of parliament.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66, has been on the throne since shortly after his father died in 2016 following a 70-year reign, but he has not been officially crowned during a lengthy mourning period.
Thailand's two largest political parties previously said they had no objections to the election being rescheduled for the coronation.
"The coronation ceremonies are important... Everybody is happy to see the event held for all Thais. Whether the delay is long or short is not a problem," Thana Chirawinit, spokesman for the Democrat Party, told Reuters.
But some parties decried the delay, saying the military wanted to hold on to power.
"The delay doesn't mean just the date but also affects the country's credibility... and economy," Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, told Reuters.
"Now that we have a new date, we hope the junta will not use its special powers to create situations to further delay the polls."
Thailand's history is pockmarked by coups, short-lived civilian governments and political crises.
The poll date is set to ignite campaign season in a country where colourful and boisterous political rallies have often tipped into deadly violence.
The office of Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who is also prime minister, called for an "environment of orderliness, civility and unity" - although violence is unlikely among a public tired of political conflict.
An array of new parties - including some aligned to the military, others to the still powerful Shinawatra clan - have already begun meetings and recruitment as a blizzard of names are tossed up as likely future prime ministers.
Those include Prayut, who has spent months touring the country as he rebrands himself from a gruff man-in-Khaki to an avuncular civilian leader with a common touch.
Yet he is deeply unpopular among many Thais, who have wearied of his hectoring style and have accused him of running down the economy and doing little to address graft, poor education standards and the kingdom's chasmic social inequality.
Even if the military government's rivals do well in elections, any new civilian government is expected to be hamstrung by the military-scripted constitution.
It allows for a fully appointed upper house and embeds 20-year strategies governing everything from the economy to education.
"You can call it hybrid democracy," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political analyst at Thammasat University.
But he cast doubt on whether the caustic divisions of the past had been healed.
"Under the coup ... polarisation remained under the carpet; if you take the carpet up, the polarisation remains," he added.
SHINAWATRAS STILL IN THE GAME?
Thailand last held a successful election in 2011.
That catapulted the then-political neophyte Yingluck, the younger sister of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, into office as head of the Pheu Thai party.
Questions remain over Pheu Thai's enduring electoral pull among its vote banks in the poor, rural north and northeast without the star power of the brother-sister duo, both of whom are in self-exile.
The party is "ready" for the vote, spokeswoman Ladawan Wongsriwong said.
"Pheu Thai is a big party and we have been trusted across the country for a long time."
But the long years of military rule have decimated the networks of the Thaksin-affiliated "Red Shirts", while scores of key Pheu Thai politicos have been co-opted into the army-linked Phalang Pracharat party.
The Shinawatra clan sits at the core of Thailand's political rupture.
Their supporters say they are the first political dynasty to address the aspirations of Thailand's poor in a sharply hierarchical kingdom where wealth is hoarded by the Bangkok business elite.
To their enemies among the ultra-royalist, conservative elite, they toxified Thai politics and society with graft, nepotism and populist handouts.
Thaksin, a policeman-turned-telecom billionaire, was toppled by a coup in 2006 and went into self-exile in 2008 over a graft conviction.
Yingluck fled Thailand in August 2017 before she could be sentenced for criminal negligence linked to a rice subsidy scheme.
The siblings have crept back to prominence in step with the approach of elections.
Thaksin has launched a weekly podcast, sharing his views on everything from Bangkok's pollution crisis to the global economy.
"He still figures in Thailand as a popular hope," Chris Baker, a Thai history expert said, despite the "extraordinary myth" of the billionaire businessman as a kindred spirit of the common man.
Many Thais hold little enthusiasm for elections, widely seen as stacked in favour of the military.
"Under the junta the country is just going from bad to worse," said news vendor Lek, declining to give her full name.
"Even if there is an election, it will likely be the same prime minister."