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Thailand to hold first General Election since coup in 2014

[BANGKOK]  Thailand will hold a general election on March 24 for the first time since a coup in May 2014.

The date was set by the Election Commission in Bangkok on Wednesday, a few hours after a royal decree was issued authorizing the poll. Voting will take place under a military-backed charter, ending one of the longest periods of rule by a junta in Thailand's modern history.

The military government over the years repeatedly pushed back the election timeline, after seizing power in 2014 following a period of unrest that included bloody street protests. The looming vote now puts the focus back on political risk in a country with a history of polls followed by demonstrations and coups.

The issue of the decree sparked a rally in Thai stocks, with the benchmark SET index rising as much as 1.2 per cent to the highest level since mid-December.

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"The announcement was a knee-jerk boost to market sentiment after a long wait for some clarity on the election," said Poramet Tongbua, a strategist at Bualuang Securities Pcl in Bangkok. "But any further gains will be limited as there's uncertainty about the outcome of the vote. The stability of the next government may be the main worry."

The junta in December lifted restrictions on political gatherings after indicating that Feb 24 was the preferred poll date. It subsequently signaled another election delay was needed, to avoid a clash with preparations for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on May 4-6.

The military-backed charter requires an election by May 9. Critics say the constitution gives appointed soldiers and bureaucrats in the planned Senate the power to stifle elected politicians in the lower house.

Protesters took to the streets again this month, but in much smaller numbers than before the coup, calling for faster progress toward the election.

The start of the election process won't disrupt economic activity, Kobsak Pootrakool, a minister in Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha's office, said in Bangkok. Stock market investors are welcoming the transition back to democracy, he added.

The military intervention in 2014 unseated a Pheu Thai Party-led administration headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin or his allies have won every election dating back to 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military.

Mr Prayuth, a former army chief who led the coup, has hinted at tying up with a political party to seek a return as premier, but he has yet to clearly declare his intentions.

His administration has tried to accelerate investment in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, whose expansion has slowed as global growth and trade feel the effects of the tension in US-China economic ties.

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