Thailand issued a royal decree on Wednesday (January 23) morning to empower the military government to hold legislative elections, the presumed last legal hurdle that has held back the announcement of a definitive polling date.

The decree, signed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn and published in the Royal Gazette, gives the Election Commission five days to set the election date, which under Thai law must be held on a Sunday. A constitutional provision requires that the polls must be held before May 9.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military government was expected earlier to issue the decree on January 2 to pave the way for an official February 24 election date, but hesitated when the royal palace announced on New Year’s Day that the king’s royal coronation would be staged between May 4-6.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn lights a candle at a sacred ceremony in a file photo. His formal coronation is due to be held in early May. Photo: Facebook
Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn lights a candle at a sacred ceremony in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Government officials had earlier said that the election should not overlap with sacred ceremonies related to the coronation, the first the kingdom has held since 1950, when Vajiralongkorn’s now deceased and widely revered father Bhumibol Adulaydej assumed the throne.

The May 4-6 coronation dates were selected and deemed auspicious by a palace astrologer, and hence are not changeable, a government source told Asia Times. Ceremonies and rites will be held before and after the main ceremony dates, reports said.

Global dignitaries are expected to be attendance, though some in Europe may symbolically decline because the country will still technically be under military rule, analysts say.

News reports suggest that the Election Commission will likely announce March 24 as the new poll date, giving political parties that have been crippled for over four years by a junta-imposed strict ban on political association time to organize and campaign.

The decree’s announcement will also likely alleviate rising pressure from the Democracy Restoration Group, a pro-democracy, anti-junta protest group which had in recent weeks staged small but vocal protests in the capital calling on the government to issue the decree and set a firm election date.

Democracy Restoration Group protestors dressed in red at a Ratchaprasong intersection demonstration, Bangkok, January 12, 2019. Photo: Shawn W. Crispin

Two rallies attended by hundreds of mostly red-garbed protestors this month were symbolically staged at Bangkok’s central Ratchaprasong intersection, the site of a 2010 military crackdown on the Red Shirt group aligned with self-exiled ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and the 2014 coup-ousted Peua Thai party.

Group leader Sirawith Seritiwat, who has protested frequently against military rule since the coup, told Asia Times on January 16 that his group is not supported by Thaksin but that it shares the traditionally Thaksin-aligned Red Shirt’s “ideology.”

His group had planned to stage a rally on January 19 at Bangkok’s iconic Democracy Monument, but changed plans when a newly created rival group known as “Unity Before Elections” announced it would hold a demonstration at the same site, raising fears of a possible confrontation and subsequent military clampdown that could be leveraged in the name of stability to further suspend polls.

Thai army commander General Apirat Kongsompong had warned that the group was causing “chaos” and disturbing public order. A clash was averted when the former protest group moved its protest to a nearby university.

But the potential for election-related violence will still loom on the horizon as pro- and anti-military parties hit the campaign trail and ramp up rhetoric the junta has warned will be barred if overly critical of its four and half years in power or makes populist promises parties can not legally keep.