Hitting the streets and airing debates, Thai political parties ramp up activity without campaigning officially

Thai politician Suthep Thaugsuban (centre) helping a supporter register as a member of his new Action Coalition for Thailand party on Oct 1, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - The long-time ban on political activities has yet to be fully lifted in Thailand but it is hard to tell from the flurry of political party activity in the kingdom.

On Sunday (Oct 28), Thailand's former ruling Puea Thai party picked retired policeman Viroj Pao-in as its new official leader after more than 300 members crowded into its headquarters in Bangkok to cast their ballot according to election rules enacted under the current military government.

Firebrand former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who led massive protests which paralysed the Puea Thai-led government in 2014 and paved the way for a coup, returned to the streets of Bangkok last week to recruit members for the newly formed Action Coalition for Thailand party.

In a similar vein, Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the youthful Future Forward Party, went for a jog in Bangkok's Lumpini Park with fellow election candidates wearing a T-shirt bearing the orange logo of his fledgling party.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged the 2014 military coup, has yet to throw his hat into the ring.

But many believe that he will eventually do so, given the whirlwind of provincial tours he has been making, which critics allege count as campaigning.

He will travel on Monday to the northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Phayao, where he will meet farmers and also hold a Cabinet meeting.

In recent weeks, he has also launched his official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as a website.

While election dates have been repeatedly floated, only to be pushed back, over the past four years, key leaders have hinted that polls will not be postponed beyond the latest tentative date of Feb 24 next year.

Deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan even reportedly suggested that university entrance examinations, which coincide with the election period, be rescheduled to allow students of voting age to cast their ballot.

Thailand's election law gives citizens aged 18 and above the right to vote.

On Sunday, some Puea Thai supporters turned up at its headquarters wearing T-shirts declaring "Election 24th February 2019".

The ban on political activities was partially lifted in September to allow parties to fulfil internal procedures in preparation for the election.

But they are not allowed to campaign - even on social media.

Thailand's oldest political party, the Democrat Party, held its first ever debate last Friday among three candidates vying to lead the party.

Hordes of supporters whooped, beat drums and waved banners within its Bangkok compound in support of incumbent leader Abhisit Vejjajiva or his challengers Warong Dechgitvigrom and Alongkorn Ponlaboot.

The event was broadcast live via Facebook and its affiliated satellite television channel.

During the debate, Mr Abhisit touted the Democrats as an alternative for voters forced to choose between dictatorships and corrupt governments.

Dr Warong pledged a stronger focus on welfare to help reduce the gap between rich and poor if chosen as Democrat leader after nationwide voting by members early next month.

"I don't see how this would break any rules," Mr Akanat Promphan, a former Democrat legislator now handling the party's communications, told The Straits Times after the debate. "We are communicating to our members."

But he conceded that the high profile internal leadership race, which has so far involved candidates jetting all over Thailand to meet their supporters, may help change public perceptions of his party as "old, rigid".

"We want to show the public that we can be a party that touches base with not only our members but also everybody, all Thai people," he said.

Amid all the activity, Thailand's election commission appeared to have largely kept its peace.

While it warned Future Forward over the phone earlier this month against collecting donations, it did not follow up with any letter, party spokesman Pannika Wanich told ST.

The party will continue fund raising and even expand this online from Monday, she said.

For over a decade prior to the coup, Thai politics was dominated by factions linked to self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The billionaire tycoon was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives overseas to evade a jail term for conflict of interest.

His sister, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, won a landslide victory in the 2011 election but was unseated by a court ruling shortly before the 2014 coup. She fled Thailand in August last year before being convicted of criminal negligence.

Both siblings have been spotted in countries such as Britain and Japan, and also post occasional comments on social media.

Puea Thai's previous iterations, the Thai Rak Thai party and People's Power Party, were both dissolved by the courts for electoral violations.

New election rules drafted since the coup make it far more difficult for Puea Thai to repeat its electoral success.

Despite unveiling a batch of young potential members of parliament last month, the party struggles to shake off allegations that it is controlled by Thaksin from abroad.

Party insiders say key members tend to be kept away from executive positions to shield them from any possible legal difficulties.

On Sunday, Mr Viroj, who was previously Puea Thai's acting leader, told reporters: "We have been extremely careful in all our activities to make sure they abide by all laws and regulations. I know we have been watched from all sides."

Standing beside him, secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai said: "Our party has faced all sorts of threats and we are not safe yet... There might not be Puea Thai tomorrow but there will surely be Puea Thai in the future."

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