Rival rallies grip Bangkok as election crunch time looms


Bangkok (AFP)

Parties for and against Thailand's military junta rallied across Bangkok Friday, as election fever grips the country ahead of the first poll in eight years.

The boisterous final push before the March 24 showdown was infused with rarely seen levels of excitement and backlit by symbolism from afar, with the family of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra holding a politically star-studded wedding in Hong Kong the same night.

The generals who seized power in 2014 are hoping to hold on through the ballot box with the help of military-appointed Senators who can vote for prime minister.

But they face several parties linked to the influential Shinawatra family, which has won every election since 2001.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and his sister Yingluck's administration was toppled by the army in the 2014 power grab.

Thailand is broadly divided between pro-Shinawatra factions and an elite aligned with the military, which has portrayed itself as a stabilising force and defender of the country's monarchy.

But loyalties are more complex now with more than seven million first-time voters aged 18-25 and new parties in the electoral mix.

The most prominent is Future Forward, led by charismatic frontman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 40-year-old billionaire popular with millennials and others weary of Thailand's old divides.

Thousands of Future Forward supporters decked out in the country's trademark orange colours waved flags and glow sticks at a stadium in Bangkok Friday night ahead of Thanathorn's appearance, as he prepped backstage.

"My age group don't want the old politics," said 23-year-old accounting student and first-time voter Phastararin Sittsart standing alongside other young supporters.

"We are worried about what happens after we graduate to the economy if this government carries on."

- Final countdown -

Political buzz galvanised multiple rallies across the Thai capital as the sun went down.

Coup leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha led the 2014 putsch and is running as a candidate for Phalang Pracharat, a proxy party for the junta.

But he is facing the electoral machine of Pheu Thai, the Thaksin-affiliated party that still taps a deep sense of loyalty from the poor but populous rural north and northeast.

"Pheu Thai has had a long history with people ? they are strong with all people," said Sharpay Janperng, 26, manager at an education company, at a packed rally for the party.

The ex-cop turned billionaire telecoms mogul has been in self-exile since 2008 to avoid a jail term on corruption charges.

But he still sits at the heart of Thailand's political breakdown.

Earlier this month the dissolution of one of his parties -- Thai Raksa Chart -- hampered an election strategy of cobbling together votes under a party list system.

Thai Raksa Chart had proposed Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for premier, but the Thai monarchy is nominally above the political fray and King Maha Vajiralongkorn struck down the move.

Ubolratana was seen at Thaksin's daughter's wedding in Hong Kong on Friday night.

When reporters asked him who will win the election as he arrived at the luxury hotel, Thaksin replied: "I don't know."