BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Tuesday said a general election he had promised to hold in November would take place “no later” than February 2019, the latest delay to anger critics of the government.
The junta has promised and postponed elections several times since its 2014 coup overthrew a civilian government. The latest date was set for November but last month the military-appointed legislature changed the election law, pointing to further delay.
“Now I will answer clearly, an election will take place no later than February 2019,” Prayuth, who is under growing pressure both at home and abroad to return to civilian government, told reporters in Bangkok, the capital.
Hundreds of people have flocked to Bangkok in recent weeks to urge the military government not to delay the vote, some of the biggest anti-junta demonstrations seen since 2014.
The latest election delay has shattered people’s confidence in Prayuth’s timeframe, said Phongthep Thepkanjana, a former deputy prime minister and a senior member of the opposition Pheu Thai Party that represents the Shinawatra family.
Thailand is divided broadly between those backing former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck, whose government was removed in the coup, and the elite in Bangkok.
“I think many Thais, like me, no longer give a lot of weight to what the prime minister has to say right now,” Phongthep said.
“The delay is a symptom of those in power who know that once an election takes place they will no longer have power. That is why they want to delay election.”
The new pledge lacked credibility, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Because Prayuth has backtracked on election dates at least four times, this new pledge is simply not credible,” he told Reuters.
However, the announcement gave investors clarity about Thailand’s political future, said Ongart Klampaiboon, deputy leader of the rival Democrat Party.
“This will create more confidence for people in the country, as well as foreign investors and business people who need to assess the political situation in their plans,” he told Reuters.
In January, parliament voted to extend by 90 days the start date for a new election law. The bill lays out rules for lower house elections and is one of four that need to take effect before the vote.
Critics say Prayuth wants to delay the vote to ensure the military retains a key role in political life.
He has hinted he would like to stay in power after any election, which is possible under the junta-backed constitution that allows for an “outsider” to be appointed prime minister.
“If Prayuth wants to step down smoothly, it has to be November this year and no other date,” said Rangsiman Rome, a leader of the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) that organized a weekend protest.
Prayuth led the May 2014 coup following months of street protests aimed at ousting Yingluck’s government. Both Thaksin and Yingluck live in self-imposed exile after fleeing prison sentences for separate corruption cases.
Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez