BANGKOK — The head of Thailand's military government on Friday invited representatives of political parties contesting next year's promised elections to discuss the planned lifting of a ban on political activity that has been in force since the army seized power more than four years ago.
The site of the Dec. 7 meeting called by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is Bangkok's Royal Thai Army Club, where the May 2014 coup led by Prayuth was announced. The junta that took over declared a nationwide ban — loosely enforced — on political gatherings of more than five people as one of many measures to suppress opponents of military rule.
Prayuth said the planned meeting is necessary to make rules for the polls, which he confirmed were still tentatively scheduled for Feb. 24. "We'll talk about it first, because before unlocking it (the ban on politics), we will have to draft some measures to be clear," Prayuth said. "We're doing it as fast as we can."
The junta had previously said it would return the country to electoral democracy at earlier dates, but repeatedly found reasons to postpone the polls. Critics of the junta have expressed skepticism that the polls will be held in February, and the timetable announced by the junta itself would allow the election to be held as late as early May. Thai media reported earlier this week that a group of small political parties has submitted a request to the Election Commission to delay the voting to May 5 so they can have more time to find new members.
"I still confirm that it will be in February," Prayuth told reporters Friday, adding that the Election Commission will be responsible for deciding whether or not requests to delay the elections are valid. He said the junta itself has not received any requests to delay the voting.
Critics of the military government have accused it of introducing a number of measures that would prolong its power, such as laws that weaken the dominance of major political parties and allow for a non-elected person to become an "outsider" prime minister.
Leading members of several political parties have said they plan to back Prayuth to become prime minister again.
When Prayuth was asked if he would join a party to become an elected prime minister, he said that was "not necessary."
"I have to consult with the legal team over how much I can do," he said.
Although a ban on politics is still officially in place, many political parties have already organized events and hit the streets in what appears to be mildly disguised forms of political campaigning. The most notable person taking part in campaign-like activities has been Prayuth.
Four ministers in the military government have also been taking part in such activities. Prayuth said they are legally allowed to work for the Palang Pracharat Party, which has declared support for Prayuth returning as prime minister.
"The four ministers will decide for themselves when to resign," Prayuth said.