BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai political parties called on the junta on Wednesday (March 28) to lift curbs on campaigning as disquiet with the military's four-year rule deepens and demands mount for an election.
Since seizing power in 2014 Thailand's generals have banned gatherings of more than five people and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha has repeatedly postponed the date for a return to democracy.
But as the fourth anniversary of the May 22 coup approaches, discontent is festering with the junta, accused of vacillating over the poll date while it faces a series of scandals.
Last month Prayut announced that elections would be held "no later" than February 2019 as he opened the door for new political parties to register.
Yet the junta has refused to ease restrictions on political gatherings and has said parties cannot meet without permission or publicly discuss policy.
On Wednesday, in the largest sanctioned political gathering since the coup, dozens of parties filled a vast convention centre in Bangkok to hear the Election Commission lay out ground rules related to the vote.
Many called for permission to campaign freely, iron-clad confirmation of a poll date and guarantees that elections would be transparent and not weighted towards military-aligned candidates.
"The parties want a clear stance on what we can and cannot do," said Phumtham Wechayachai, secretary general of the Puea Thai party, whose government was toppled in the 2014 coup.
Politicians from other parties echoed the impatience.
"I want the EC to lift all the bans so that parties can hold meetings, campaign and do public relations activities like we used to," Sanyapong Phupraditsilapa from the Palang Thongtin Thai party told AFP.
Politicians also expressed concern that the cards are stacked in favour of military-linked parties who have already come out in support of junta chief Prayut staying on as premier.
"What I'm concerned about is, if the junta is establishing a political party and using government mechanisms, will it be fair for other parties?" said Supachai Jaismut, the deputy secretary general of the Bhumjaithai party.
Analysts say that even if the election goes forward as planned, the next civilian government will have its hands tied by a junta-scripted constitution that will enshrine key policy perimeters for the next 20 years.
The charter has turned Thailand's upper house or senate into an appointed rather than elected body, a powerful check on the next administration.
It also leaves the door open for an non-elected premier, who could come from the military.
Prayut, an ex-army chief, has not ruled out future political ambitions.
The general seized power following massive street demonstrations, vowing to bring stability to a country beset by political divisions between Pheu Thai-aligned rural supporters and a Bangkok-backed military elite.