Thailand goes to the polls on March 24: A look at the kingdom's turbulent politics since 2001

Activists and university students gather to demand the first election in Thailand to be held on Feb 24 this year in Bangkok, on Jan 8, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - After nearly five years of military rule, Thailand will hold elections on March 24.

The poll will be the first since generals ousted a democratically elected government in 2014 after violent street protests.

Here is a brief look at two turbulent decades in Thailand's politics.

A 'populist' emerges

In the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, policeman-turned-telecoms giant Thaksin Shinawatra storms into Thai politics riding a populist wave to a poll victory in 2001.

His Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party promises to steady the economy and universal healthcare, debt relief for farmers and development funds for rural villages.

The waves from the financial crisis created his opening.

Other politicians "were very discredited at this point", Thailand historian Chris Baker told AFP. "This was Thaksin's great opportunity to rise."

After years of politics marked by a boom and bust cycle of coups, Thaksin's government becomes the first elected civilian administration to complete a four-year term.

But a controversial "war on drugs" kills upwards of 2,500 people, while scores die in the Muslim-majority south in crackdowns by security forces which ignite a new round of insurgency.

Thaksin sweeps polls in 2005. but the victory is short-lived. His premiership is engulfed by financial scandal and protesters take to the streets.

Thaksin calls another election the next year but is booted out months later in a bloodless coup.

'Lost decade'

Violence soon dominates the political stage, with Bangkok descending into a cycle of rallies, riots - including a blockade of city airports - and protests in 2008.

With Thaksin in self-exile and his successors deposed by the courts, the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva struggles for legitimacy after being installed without a public mandate.

Thaksin is convicted in absentia on charges he says are politically motivated and goes into self-exile.

Bangkok-based royalists known as the "Yellow Shirts" face off in the streets against the pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts".

In 2010, more than 90 people are killed as the army - led by current junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha - opens fire on Red Shirts gathered in downtown Bangkok.

The city centre is set ablaze in days of mayhem.

Historians dubbed the period from 2006 Thailand's "lost decade", as South-east Asia's most dynamic economy slows during the political paralysis.

The protest years saw deep social cleavage between the rural poor and wealthier middle and upper classes - the latter mostly in Bangkok.

"Urban voters were allied with the senior military officials and aristocracy," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University.

"Thus, the divide became increasingly acrimonious."

Sister act

Fresh elections in 2011 see Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck emerge as Thailand's first female prime minister, sweeping to power with promises to uplift the rural poor.

But protests erupt halfway through her administration as Yingluck tries to gain an amnesty for her brother.

The fever reaches breaking point in 2014 as tens of thousands of opposition protesters vow to "shut down" Bangkok until Yingluck quits and the Shinawatras are cut from Thai politics.

Yingluck calls an election to break the impasse but the death toll on the streets mounts and the vote is annulled.

Generals strike back

An embattled Yingluck is hit with charges related to a rice subsidy scheme for her rural base and is removed from office.

In 2014, the army declares martial law in the name of bringing stability to a country in paralysis and then carries out its 12th successful coup since 1932.

Junta leader Prayut oversees a crackdown on dissent and expands his powers, winning a referendum in 2016 to change the Constitution.

Amid the upheaval, revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was seen as a rare figure of unity over a seven-decade reign, dies that year. Thailand plunges into mourning as politics goes into the deep freeze.

Facing jail, Yingluck flees the country in August 2017 and joins her brother in self-exile.

The junta promises elections but delays them repeatedly. Finally on Wednesday, polls are announced for March 24.

But experts warn Thailand's democracy will not be the same after years of junta rule.

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