Thailand lifts ban on political activities ahead of vote

Thailand has again announced a general election, this time in February, more than four years after a military government seized power and called the move temporary. The junta lifted a ban on political activities.

Thailand's military junta on Tuesday lifted a ban on political campaigning ahead of elections planned to take place on February 24 next year.

"Political parties should be able to campaign to present their policies," said an order published in the Royal Gazette.

The government imposed a strict ban on political activity when it took power in a 2014 coup. It has promised elections on multiple occasions since without delivering. Coup leaders in 2014 cited a need for law and order after months of protests against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Puea Thai Party.

"The people and political parties will be able to take part in political activities during this period leading up to the election in accordance with the constitution," said a statement from the military government.

The election looks likely to pit the populist political movement of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck's brother — against the military and royalist establishment.

Read more: Growing calls for elections in Thailand

The Bangkok-based establishment took the reins of power in successive coups in 2006 and 2014. Since then, it has set up its own proxy political parties.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

A Thai political dynasty with rural support

Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra is a wealthy businessman and former PM of Thailand. As founder of the Pheu Thai party, he was popular among rural poor, but unpopular among rich elite. In 2006, Thaskin was accused of fraud and ousted in a military coup. He fled Thailand in 2008 and faces two years in jail if he returns. Shinawatra-affiliated parties have won every Thai election since 2001.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck's rise into politics

As successor to her brother, Yingluck Shinawatra was elected as PM of Thailand in 2011. She enjoyed the popularity of Taskin's base but was also targeted by his opponents, who accused her of being a political proxy for her exiled brother. Before she was elected as Thailand's first female PM, she had never held a political position or government post.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

The rice scandal

Yingluck's flagship policy, which helped her win the 2011 election, was a rice subsidy program aimed at her base where the government paid poor farmers 50 percent more for rice with the intention of providing a minimum wage. The plan backfired with regional competitors undercutting Thai rice exports, resulting in huge stockpiles and alleged losses to the state of $17 billion (14.25 billion euros).

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck thrown out of office

In May 2014, Yingluck was ousted from office by the Thai constitutional court after it ruled she had abused power in transferring a senior aide to another position. This was combined with months of public protest against a proposed amnesty bill for those involved in violent protests after her brother was forced from power. The Thai military took power and they continue to rule the country.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck's supporters wear red

The "red shirt" protesters, who are loyal to the Shinawatra family, oppose Thailand's elite, royalist class backed by the military. Yingluck's supporters see the moves against her as an attempt to finally oust the family from power and eliminate its political influence in Thailand.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

The royal loyalists in yellow

Loyalists to the Thai royal family, ruling elite and military are known as "yellow shirts." They say that the Shinawatras abuse their power for their own gain and accuse them of creating populist policies to attract the poor electoral majority in Thai society. They consider this a threat to the traditional ruling class. Multiple clashes between reds and yellows have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Yingluck follows her brother into exile

In 2015, Yingluck was charged with criminal negligence and dereliction for her role in the failed rice subsidy scheme. She was also impeached for the same charges, and not allowed to participate in Thai politics for five years. She fled Thailand in August 2017, before a ruling on her case was to be announced. In September 2017, she was sentenced, in absentia, to five years in jail.

Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand's Shinawatra family

Thailand's uncertain future

Thai politics has been dominated for over a decade by a power struggle between the traditional elite and the Shinawatra family. Political scientist Wolfram Schaffar told DW that the goal of pursuing the Shinawatras has been to "weaken elements of direct democracy." Other experts say that Yingluck's exile leaves Thailand without an opposition figure and allows the military to rule indefinitely.

The government, led by former army chief Prayut Chan-ocha, has repeatedly delayed plans for a general election. It had already eased the political ban partially in September, allowing political parties to resume organizing.

Read more: Thailand on its way back to democracy?

The Shinawatra family and its allies formed a new political party - the Thai Raksa Chart Party - in November, ahead of the anticipated election. The move was seen as an effort to create a back-up movement for Puea Thai, which still faces possible dissolution at the hands of the present government.

Both Thaksin and Yingluck live in self-imposed exile after both being convicted of abuses of power while in office. 

rc/msh (Reuters, AFP)

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