By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Following nearly five years of military rule and multiple delays, Thai voters will go to the polls on March 24 to choose a new government after Wednesday’s Royal Gazette publication of a king-endorsed decree setting a date for the election.
The official date is a month later than a tentative plan that called for a general election on Feb. 24. In September 2018, the National Assembly passed laws setting an early May deadline for the long-awaited vote.
Since then, the royal palace announced that the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn would occur from May 4 to May 6. The announcement prompted authorities to set the election date so it would not clash with the royal ceremony, according to a deputy prime minister for legal affairs.
“The majority of commissioners agreed that the general election would be held on March 24,” Election Commission Chairman Ittiporn Boonprakong told reporters in Bangkok. “We were considering which date would be most suitable.”
Previously, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha had postponed promises of holding elections at least six times since he led a military coup that seized power from the civilian-led government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
“People who want to vote now get their wish,” Prayuth told reporters while refusing to speak of his political future.
The prime minister’s office also issued an online statement regarding the election.
“In the past, the government only coordinated with the Election Commission on the schedules of the events related to the coronation, before and after, in order to avoid risk overlapping,” the statement said. “The past conflict that led to national crisis should not come back to haunt us again. We urge all brother and sister citizens to go to the polls.”
Late last year, the junta lifted its ban against political gatherings of five or more people and allowed political parties to hold activities. Since then, protesters have rallied in Bangkok at least three times to demand that the election be held on Feb. 24.
Following Wednesday’s announcement, a leader of “People Who Want Elections” announced the group was done protesting.
“Let’s inform you that we won’t rally on Jan. 26. Let’s us all be ready to vote after waiting for more than five years for a chance to choose the nation’s future,” student activist Siriwith Seritiwit said on his Facebook.
A member of the Future Forward Party (FFP) also expressed hope.
“This election is an indicator of the nation’s future, to regress or progress, to stay with fear or hope, to stay with old politics or a new one. The future is with the tip of your pen,” FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit said in a Facebook post.
Despite the announcement, a political analyst said the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the real name of the junta – needed to establish an interim government ahead of the vote to ensure fairness.
“We can believe that we could have an election only if the NCPO stops governing, otherwise it may postpone the poll again for security reasons,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University. “There is Section 44 of the Constitution, which Gen. Prayuth can use to postpone the election. The past postponements were without a reason.”
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, meanwhile, called on the junta to withdraw restrictions on freedom of expression to pave the way for a genuinely free and open election campaign. Thailand is one of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Today’s announcement of an election date in Thailand is both welcome and long overdue. But the climate in the country is still not conducive for a free and fair election – the junta must now remove all remaining draconian limits on freedom of expression,” said Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a member of parliament in Malaysia.
“Unless political parties are allowed to campaign without fear of retaliation, voters will not be able exercise their democratic right and make an informed choice at the ballot box.”