By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand will soon hold its first election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup and many hope the vote will return Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to democracy.
The government lifted a ban on political activity when it announced the Feb. 24 election last week, but critics say the junta has taken several steps to remain in power after the vote, casting doubt on how credible the poll will be.
"We have seen a systematic manipulation and distortion of the electoral process, of the will of the people, starting from the constitution," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, referring to the military-drafted constitution that was publicly ratified in 2016, two years after the coup.
"The reason this (election) has a crooked feel more than others is because it pretends to be democratic, clean and fair when it is completely rigged," Thitinan said.
The military government has denied accusations it has been engineering a path to prolong its stay in power.
"If the government wants to extend its power beyond this point then what would be the point of holding an election? This is the roadmap that we have promised to the people," said government spokesman Puttipong Punnakan.
But one or more military-backed parties are likely to be in the fray, pitted against the anti-establishment populists led by the Shinawatra family and some smaller centrist parties.
Some critics say the regime has tried to influence everything from electoral boundaries in favour of pro-junta parties and hand-picking the entire upper house of parliament, down to plans to re-design ballot papers to remove party names and symbols attached to candidates - which will be likely to confuse voters.
The Election Commission is expected to finalise ballot design later this week.
Members of major opposition parties like the Shinawatra-linked Puea Thai Party and the new, millennial-oriented Future Forward Party are among hundreds of government critics who have been slapped with lawsuits under the computer crimes act.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has made his long-term political ambitions clear, even going so far as to set up a party with four cabinet ministers, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP).
At least two smaller parties have also declared their support for Prayuth.
One senior government official admitted the aim of the PPRP was to keep Prayuth in office, saying, "or else everything that this government has done would be wasted".
Thailand has lurched between civilian and military governments for decades, and has among the highest number of coups of any country - 13 successful ones - since 1932 when the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy.
Since 2001, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family's allies have regularly rallied the masses for support and today remain a major political force that irks the royalist establishment.
Thaksin-linked political parties, known for their populist social welfare policies like a generous rice subsidy scheme and universal healthcare, have won every general election since 2001.
Puea Thai faces increasing pressure from the junta which has launched legal cases against members of the Shinawatra clan and pro-Thaksin politicians, and threatened to disband the party pending an Election Commission investigation.
Still, Puea Thai and several offshoots remain optimistic about their chances.
"We have been under pressure like this before and we have prevailed so this time it is not so disheartening," party spokeswoman Laddawan Wongsiwong told Reuters.
"Puea Thai is not fighting alone against dictatorship."
The message is an attractive one for groups like the Future Forward Party, which are likely to fall into an anti-junta coalition appealing to millennials disillusioned with a semi-authoritarian regime and years of instability.
Some political groups remain unaligned with either side, the biggest of which is the Democrat Party of former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, who hopes to offer voters a third alternative.
"The people get to decide the direction of the country in this election," Abhisit told Reuters last month.
"Do they want what they have now, or will they go back to the way Puea Thai ran things, or will they be more interested in what the Democrats can offer?"
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes Abhisit could play the role of kingmaker, citing his "willingness to compromise with the military" and historic rivalry with Thaksin.
No party is likely to muster enough votes on its own to control a parliamentary majority in the 500-seat lower house, pointing to a probable scenario of a coalition government. Nominating a candidate for prime minister requires the support of the majority in both houses of parliament.
The military government is currently in the process of appointing members to the 250-seat upper house of parliament.
(Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)