BANGKOK (AFP) - The toppled Thai opposition on Thursday (Sept 13) called on the ruling junta to lift the ban on political activities as the countdown begins for the kingdom's first election since a 2014 coup.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn endorsed two bills on Wednesday that clear the bureaucratic hurdles to a poll, which has been promised and delayed for years by the junta. An election is required to take place by May.
Junta critics want to hold political gatherings, which have been banned since a coup four years ago toppled the Puea Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's first female premier.
"We demand for the junta to lift the political activities ban as soon as possible," Pichai Naripthaphan, an ex-minister in Yingluck's cabinet, told Agence France-Presse.
"As the country heads to an election, we need to create a good atmosphere so that people can express their opinions." Senior junta figures have floated a Feb 24 poll date.
Pichai said that date is now increasingly likely. He cautioned the National Council for Peace Order (NCPO) - the political name of the junta government - against postponing it again.
"If the NCPO postpones it again, there will be local and international pressure," he said.
Puea Thai is affiliated to the Shinawatra clan, a powerful and wealthy political family whose parties and proxies have won every Thai general election since 2001.
But coups and court rulings have toppled their governments, pushing Yingluck - and her older brother Thaksin, the family patron - into self-exile to avoid jail terms in Thailand.
With the ban on politics still in place, junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha has spent months positioning himself for a potential run at the next election.
Despite insisting he has no interest in politics - only in maintaining peace and order - the gruff former general is expected to front an army-aligned party in the next election.
For months he has criss-crossed the country promising economic development, wooing local politicians with promised investment and showing his softer side to the electorate with endless photo opportunities.
On Thursday, he hosted Japanese girl pop sensation "AKB48" at Government House, waving a pink day-glo stick to one of their smash hits and posing for photos.
Flanked by a royalist, conservative Bangkok-centric establishment, Thailand's military loathes the Shinawatras, accusing them of winning the hearts of the electorate with a toxic form of populist politics.
But junta critics say the army upended Thailand's fragile democracy to ensure its role is embedded in the kingdom's political future.