Thai party challenging army rule holds first Bangkok rally

The political party seen as the main challenger to military-dominated government in Thailand has held its first rally in the capital, as campaigning heats up in the first election since a 2014 military coup

BANGKOK -- The political party seen as the main challenger to military-dominated government in Thailand held its first rally in the capital on Friday, as campaigning heats up for the first election since a 2014 military coup.

Several thousand Pheu Thai party supporters gathered outside Bangkok's city hall, waving signs of support as they listened to hours of speeches seeking to fire up the faithful for the March 24 polls.

Pheu Thai is the flagship party of the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which has won every national election since 2001. Thaksin was accused of abuse of power and disrespect toward the monarchy and deposed by a 2006 military coup.

Since then, Thailand's conservative establishment, fearful of his populist appeal, has sought to oppose his comeback. The 2014 coup ousted the government of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Team Thaksin faces an uphill battle because Thailand's military overlords for the past five years enacted legislation virtually ensuring that no single political party can win a majority of parliamentary seats, and that the next prime minister has to have the backing of pro-military lawmakers. Its efforts make the prime minister in the current military government, Prayuth Chan-ocha — who led the 2014 coup — the odds-on favorite to keep his job.

Thaksin's forces suffered a setback last week with the spectacular failure of a plan by another of its affiliated parties to make Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, its candidate for prime minister. The monarch slapped down the attempt as inappropriate and unconstitutional, and now the Thai Raksa Chart Party has suspended campaigning and faces possible dissolution by a court. The failed effort is likely to eat into the number of House seats Thaksin's side can accumulate.

At Friday's rally, however, the speakers went on the offensive.

"We will lead a green revolution, everything will be green," said Plodprasop Suraswadi, a former chief of the Royal Forestry Department who also was a deputy prime minister in Yingluck's government.

"The only green we don't want is the army. Go back to your barracks!" he shouted, to enthusiastic applause.

A speech by the party's main candidate for prime minister, longtime Thaksin loyalist and former Cabinet minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, capped the evening. She accused the military government of hurting the economy and said Pheu Thai could bring prosperity "as we have done before."

"The time is up for the tank government," she said, in a reference to the tanks the army traditionally rolls out when it stages a coup. "It's time for professional economists. It's time for Pheu Thai to save the economy."

"I will always vote for them," said 74-year-old Buay Saeiam, who attended the rally. "They always have practical policies whose results we can see."

Another in the crowd, Reungsak Benjapan, said he also has voted for the party many times.

"There is always an attempt to get rid of this party, using all sorts of methods," he said. "But for those who love this party, it will be hard to get rid of it from our hearts. I have given my faith to them long ago."

Thaksin has denied involvement with the Pheu Thai party because election rules forbid parties from being led by outsiders. But he said in March last year during a reception in Tokyo that he believes the party is led by many good people that "should be able to lead the party to another landslide victory."