September 14, 2018 / 11:28 AM / in 10 days

Thai parties cleared to organise for first time in years as election nears

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Political parties in Thailand were on Friday allowed to resume organising for the first time since a 2014 military coup, in anticipation of a general election due by May, but a ban on gatherings or more than five people remains in place.

The military government has promised, and repeatedly delayed, a general election but steps this week, including royal endorsement of laws on the election of members of parliament and the selection of senators, are the surest signs yet the schedule for a return of democratic rule is being fixed.

“Political parties will be allowed to conduct important activities ahead of the election,” the military government said in a statement published in the Royal Gazette.

The government did not explicitly say the ban on public gatherings of more than five people remained in place, but it said parties could not campaign.

“Parties can communicate with their members electronically, but not appear to be campaigning,” it said, while warning that authorities could block such communication “if it is illegal or a breach public peace”.

The military has been running Thailand since the May 2014 coup, when it ousted the civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, citing the need to end street protests, and banned political activity in the name of peace and order.

The ban has quelled overt rivalry between populist political forces and the old Bangkok-based establishment, which had triggered bouts of violence and military interventions in politics for more than a decade.

But divisions remain just below the surface.

The election will be held under a new constitution, written by an army-appointed committee, which critics say is designed to prolong the military’s influence over politics for years to come through unelected bodies and other mechanisms.

The military says the constitution should eliminate cycles of political instability.

An election date has not been officially set but senior government officials have said it will be held by May.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters on Thursday it would be held on Feb. 24 but the Election Commission has yet to confirm a date.

Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Panarat Thepgumpanat, and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Robert Birsel

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