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Thai junta lifts campaigning ban, polls set for Feb 24

Bangkok

THAILAND'S junta on Tuesday lifted a ban on political campaigning ahead of 2019 elections, more than four years after the restriction was imposed following the kingdom's latest coup.

One of the military's first acts after seizing power in May 2014 was to outlaw political activity of all kinds, as it muzzled opposition in a country notorious for its rowdy - and often deadly - street politics.

But the ban was officially lifted on Tuesday, prompting the Election Commission to confirm an expected poll date of Feb 24.

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"Political parties should be able to campaign to present their policies," according to an order signed by junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha and published by palace mouthpiece The Royal Gazette. The junta "has decided to amend or abolish the laws" which could inhibit campaigns before elections, it said.

Thailand's rulers began easing restrictions in September, allowing political parties to recruit new members and elect leaders. But campaigns and street rallies remained banned.

Tuesday's order raises the prospect of a return to Thailand's rambunctious politics and the potential for street rallies that have defined much of the turbulent last decade of Thai politics.

Analysts say this time the military and its backers are hellbent on blocking the Shinawatra clan from returning to power.

A new charter embeds government policy for the next 20 years, dilutes the number of elected parliamentary seats available and introduces a hand-picked upper house and the possibility of an appointed prime minister. Mr Prayut, a former army chief, is widely tipped to make a bid for the premiership after elections.

Despite lifting the campaigning ban, the junta still retains tools to silence its critics including arbitrary detention, according to legal experts.

"It's to be seen how far the authorities will let people rally at certain 'restricted' places like at the Government House or near the palace," said Anon Chawalawan of legal monitoring group iLaw.

Politicians across the divides welcomed the easing of the ban. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an arch rival to the Shinawatras whose conservative Democrat party has not won a Thai election in over two decades, said it "should have been done before".

Thailand's junta says it was forced to seize power in 2014 to restore order after months of street protests paralysed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. But a promised return to elections has repeatedly slipped, allowing the junta to woo defectors from rivals including Pheu Thai, Thailand's biggest party which it dumped from office with its coup. AFP