Amid mounting defiance across the country against its ruling junta's tight control over freedom of expression, Thailand has finally announced an official election date, a potential step towards the first democratic election of a government since the country's 2011 elections. With a royal decree backing its announcement, the election commission announced a March 24 voting day; in December, the commission announced a February 24 voting day, but never received the necessary decree.
The 'official' announcement of a specific date is the first since the 2014 coup, as the ruling junta has repeatedly pushed back several promised election deadlines – at least once every year. In a move to downplay concerns of another delay, the office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the coup, said a new government "will be in place" post-election, and cited Thailand's existing electoral laws as a strong enough to "end any further doubts on the holding and timing of general elections."
Bangkok's streets have seen sporadic anti-government protests in recent months, as activists demanded an end to the delays and dissatisfaction with the ongoing political turmoil, which includes a long line of coups, short-lived civilian governments, and political crises. Many in Thailand remain skeptical: Prayut has promised elections three times, and speculation persists that the new king's coronation may present another pretext for delays.
Even if an election is held, Thailand's situation may not change: Prayut has spent months touring the country in a rebranding effort, with opinion polls over the past two months placing him in the lead. Furthermore, even if the junta's rivals do well in elections, any new civilian government's powers would be limited: the junta-written constitution gives sweeping powers to a junta-appointed assembly.
Raising the stakes to the regional level is Thailand's role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019. Already, ASEAN has moved its summit dates to accommodate Thailand's evolving electoral timeline, and key agenda items have been dropped. The last time Thailand chaired ASEAN was in 2009, when another political crisis in the country led to a dramatic evacuation of ASEAN leaders from a venue being stormed by protestors.