BANGKOK -- Thailand's oft-delayed general election campaign is officially on.
The Election Commission of Thailand announced Wednesday afternoon that a general election will be held March 24. This followed a royal decree issued earlier in the day authorizing the poll, marking a decisive step in the country's return to electoral politics.
"King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun is graciously pleased to proclaim that it is an appropriate period to hold a general election," the Royal Household said in a statement. The decree was needed before a general election could be held.
The decree allows political parties to officially launch their campaigns. The Office of the Prime Minister released an announcement, following the decree, urging people and parties to act in an orderly fashion.
"Political campaigning and the presentation of policy platforms can be undertaken through democratic processes, so that the soundest and most viable proposals are presented to the people," the office said. "However, conflicts or disputes that can create a political crisis, similar to those which have happened in the past, should not be allowed to recur," it added.
"The government's stance signifies that it could still stop the election process if political rallies develop into severe insurgency," said Yuji Mizukami, visiting research fellow at Thammasat University.
The Election Commission will accept applications from candidates to run for office from Feb. 4 to Feb. 8. During the period, political parties must also name up to three possible prime ministerial candidates each.
Overseas absentee ballots will take place from March 4 to 16. Advance polling in Thailand will take place on March 17.The commission did not specify when the election result will be announced.
The commission and junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had been negotiating the dates for voting and the formation of a new government so they do not interfere with the King's coronation ceremony set for May 4-6.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam has been pressing for the vote to take place on March 24, and for results to be withheld until after the coronation. Election results must be released no later than two months after the vote.
The junta originally wanted the election to be held a month earlier -- on Feb. 24. But the plan needed to be revised after the King announced the coronation date on Jan. 1, forcing the junta to reschedule the process.
Thailand has been under military rule since a coup in May 2014, despite the junta promising to restore democracy as soon as it saw the country as stable.
The initial postponement of the election sparked protests in several parts of the country. A group of about 300 anti-junta demonstrators gathered outside Thammasat University in Bangkok on Jan. 20 to protest further delays. The group insisted that it would hold another protest this weekend if no decree was released by then.
The election is expected to be a three-way race among the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, anti-junta Thaksin family-linked Pheu Thai Party, and the Democrat Party, a favorite of the urban establishment.