Key Thai political party eyes elections with new leaders

The main political party that will oppose Thailand's ruling military government voted in new leadership on Sunday as it prepares for elections scheduled for early next year.

It was the first time the Pheu Thai party had officially convened with all its members since Thailand's military overthrew a Pheu Thai-led government from office in a 2014 coup and introduced a ban on political gatherings of over five people. The ban was partially lifted last month to allow political parties to conduct basic functions.

Pheu Thai named 86-year-old senior party member Viroj Pao-in as its official leader, while Phumtham Vechayaychai keeps his role as secretary-general. The meeting where the leadership votes were cast was attended by several hundred party members, all wearing dark suits.

"We are now getting ready for the elections," Viroj told reporters.

Pheu Thai, under different name variations, has won every election since it was founded in 1998 by telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Its administrations have since been overthrown twice by military coups, first in 2006, when Thaksin was ousted as prime minister, and most recently in May 2014, when the current military government ousted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra from office after sometimes violent political demonstrations on Bangkok's streets.

Thaksin's landslide election victories sparked political divisions in Thai society pitting his supporters against more conservative Thais who support the country's traditional powers, which include the military and monarchy.

The ruling junta has been criticized for introducing election laws that weaken democratic institutions and give itself an advantage in the next polls, which its leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, is expected to contest.

Pheu Thai also fears that it could face legal harassment if the ruling junta finds it guilty of violating a law that forbids political parties to be run by an outsider, as Pheu Thai is still heavily linked to Thaksin, who is alleged to be supervising the party from overseas, where he lives in self-imposed exile.

The government has not announced an official date for the elections, though it has said they are tentatively scheduled for Feb. 24.

Sudarat Keyuraphan, a co-founder of Thaksin's political machine, was named as Pheu Thai's chief strategist on Sunday and will be responsible for choosing which candidates the party will field in the elections.

When asked to comment over rumors that she would be the party's choice for prime minster, Sudarat said it was not yet time for the party to nominate a prime ministerial candidate.

She said she is confident that Pheu Thai will come out victorious in the elections because its policies reflect people's needs.

"We are confident, and not unscientifically," Sudarat said, noting that Pheu Thai conducts polls and surveys to determine which policies it should introduce to satisfy voters. "We are confident that our policies will be policies the people will be satisfied with and our policies will be able to fix their problems."

Critics of Pheu Thai have accused the party of forming populist policies that sound appealing but lack practicality.