Thailand's junta yesterday lifted a four-year ban on political campaigning ahead of 2019 elections, prompting Thaksin Shinawatra -- the exiled billionaire who sits at the heart of the kingdom's political rupture -- to hail a "new hope" for the nation.
One of the military's first acts after seizing power in May 2014 was to outlaw political activity of all kind, as it muzzled opposition in a country notorious for its rowdy -- and often deadly -- street politics.
But the ban was officially lifted yesterday, prompting the Election Commission to confirm an expected poll date of February 24.
"Political parties should be able to campaign to present their policies," according to an order signed by junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha and published by palace mouthpiece the Royal Gazette.
The junta "has decided to amend or abolish the laws" which could inhibit campaigns before elections, it said.
Thailand's rulers began easing restrictions in September, allowing political parties to recruit new members and elect leaders. But campaigns and street rallies remained banned.
The order raises the prospect of a return to Thailand's rambunctious politics and the potential for street rallies that have defined much of the turbulent last decade of Thai politics.
In that time, Thai politics has been sharply polarised between supporters of the powerful Shinawatra clan -- popular in the poor, populous north and northeast -- and the royalist, conservative Bangkok-centric elite backed by the army.
The military loathes Thaksin, the former cop turned telecoms tycoon who won a landslide election in 2001, and is hellbent on blocking the Shinawatra clan from returning to power.
A new charter embeds government policy for the next 20 years, dilutes the number of elected parliamentary seats available and introduces a hand-picked upper house and the possibility of an appointed prime minister.
"I'd like to congratulate the Thai people as today is the start of a new hope we'll get freedom and equality back," Thaksin said in a rare Facebook post responding to the lifting of the campaigning ban.
He also called for the constitution to be changed in a post accompanied by a photo of him making the three-fingered salute from "The Hunger Games" movie franchise, an unofficial emblem of defiance of Thailand's ruling junta.
Junta chief Prayut meanwhile is widely tipped to make a bid for the premiership after elections, after years insisting he was compelled by duty to seize power.
While the political ban muzzled rival parties, he has been crisscrossing the country offering economic handouts, photo opportunities and building alliances with local politicos.
Despite lifting the campaigning ban, the junta still retains tools to silence its critics including arbitrary detention, according to legal experts.
"It's to be seen how far the authorities will let people rally at certain 'restricted' places like at the Government House or near the palace," said Anon Chawalawan, of legal monitoring group iLaw.