BANGKOK: More than 30 new Thai political parties submitted names and logos on the opening day of party registration in Bangkok on Friday (Mar 2), an early step in the junta-ruled kingdom's halting return to democracy.
Thailand has been under army rule since a 2014 putsch toppled an elected government and installed the country's most autocratic regime in a generation.
The generals have banned all political activity and repeatedly postponed a promised return to democracy.
Yet this week the junta chief vowed polls would be held no later than February 2019.
In an early sign of enthusiasm for the vote, dozens of new parties applied for registration at the Election Commission (EC) on Friday, under names like "Siam Democrat Party" and "Thai Unity Party."
"So far there are 34 names of political parties submitted to the EC," an official told AFP on Friday morning.
Many were political novices with backgrounds in business, civil society or academia, plus several farmers from the north and south.
A YouTube celebrity was also among the crowd, while one group wore T-shirts with the faces of Thailand's most bitter political rivals arranged in a heart under the words "United".
The agency has 30 days to approve or reject the bids.
"This is the first time ... that we have opened registration. There are 34 parties which is a lot and it shows us that people are interested in taking part in politics and that they want a general election," Jarungvith Phumma, acting secretary-general of the Election Commission, told reporters on Friday.
Thailand's caustic political scene has been dominated for over a decade two main factions: the Democrat Party and various incarnations of Pheu Thai - a populist movement headed by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
With the backing of a rural support base, Thaksin's parties have won every national election since 2001.
Yet their governments have been repeatedly knocked from power by coups and court rulings favoured by a Bangkok-based, military-allied elite.
Analysts say the ruling military government is determined to curb Pheu Thai's influence in the next poll and has rewritten a charter that hampers larger parties and shrinks the clout of elected politicians.
The military regime has yet to lift its ban on political organising or protests of any kind.
Even if held as promised, the 2019 vote will not restore the level of democracy Thailand enjoyed before the coup.
The military government's new charter replaces a once-elected senate with a fully appointed upper house, including several spots reserved for military leaders.
There is also a charter loophole that would allow parliament to install an unelected premier - an arrangement analysts say government chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha is gunning for.