Thai anti-junta activists display placards during a demonstration against the possible delay of the country's general election, in Bangkok on January 8, 2019.
Thai anti-junta activists display placards during a demonstration against the possible delay of the country's general election, in Bangkok on January 8, 2019.
Bangkok, Thailand CNN —  

Thailand’s long-awaited election will be held on March 24, the country’s Election Commission announced Wednesday, after almost five years of military rule.

The formal announcement came hours after King Maha Vajirilongkorn issued a royal decree on Wednesday calling for a general election to be held in the country in 2019.

“Today, in the afternoon, the Election Committee had held a meeting and has reached an agreement to designate March 24 as a general election date for the members of the House of Representatives,” Ittiporn Boonpracong, Chairman of the Election Commission of Thailand said at a press conference.

Elections will be the first official poll the country has seen in eight years and are widely considered to be a vote between a form of democracy and legitimized authoritarian rule.

Following the royal decree, the Election Commission had five days to set a date, which is final and official. A statement from the Prime Minister’s office on Wednesday said that the House of Representatives and a new government would both be in place “by the middle of this year.”

Former army Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha seized power in a military coup in 2014, following six months of street protests and the removal of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra has dominated Thai politics in some form since 2001 and his Pheu Thai Party remains strong with a loyal support base in the country’s northeast.

Throughout his time in power, Prayut repeatedly promised to restore the nation to civilian democratic rule. After many delays, a date for February 24 seemed more likely than ever until Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam hinted that it would be postponed until March 24, ostensibly so it would not interfere with the new king’s coronation ceremony plans from May 4 to 6.

Rising anger

The repeated postponement of elections has angered many Thais hoping for political stability after years of military rule.

“This election is not about policies of the parties, but is very significant for Thailand if we will stay in a dictatorship regime,” 21-year-old LGBTQ activist and Future Forward party member Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree recently told CNN.

A series of small but significant protests have taken place in recent weeks – a poignant show of opposition during a period in which free speech advocates have been prosecuted and face years in prison.

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A win for the military

In December, the military lifted a ban on political campaigning that Prayut had put in place shortly after taking over.

Chayika Wongnapachant, the niece of Thaksin and Yingluck, joined new party Thai Raksa Chart (Thai Safe The Nation Party) to fight against injustices that she sees “at every level” of society.

“The execution of the rule of law and economic policies are carried out unequally toward the people. I want to change it,” she told CNN.

Prayut, the former general turned prime minister, is widely expected to contest in the poll. On Wednesday he said he would consider joining a party that, “is dedicated, truly selfless and determined to change the country for the better, not one which seeks to undo everything this government has started,” according to the Bangkok Post.

A military-drafted 2017 constitution is widely interpreted as designed to prevent the opposition Pheu Thai party from returning to office and ensure the army will continue to have a say in the country’s future, no matter who wins the election.

Even if a pro-military party doesn’t win, the new constitution – the country’s 20th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 – is the junta’s insurance policy as it allows for an unelected prime minister and a third of the legislature to be appointed by the military brass.

Thais will be voting for the 500-seat lower house of parliament, while the 250-member upper house, or Senate, will be chosen entirely by the military.