Dozens of new political parties register in run-up to Thai poll

BANGKOK, Thailand (UPDATED) – Nearly 40 new Thai political parties submitted names and logos on the opening day of party registration in Bangkok on Friday, March 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 a rare opening for political activity and 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".

"There are 38 groups who have submitted the applications for party registration," an election official told Agence France-Presse.

Many were political novices with backgrounds in business, civil society or academia, plus several farmers from the rural 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 shape above the word "reconciliation".

Registration will be open until the end of the month and election authorities have 30 days to approve or reject the bids.

Yet the junta has refused to fully lift its ban on political activity, preventing any further organizing or campaigning.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said parties must seek the junta's permission before holding any meetings.

"They can announce who they support to become the next premier, but they cannot announce their policy platform," he added.

Hamstrung democracy

Thailand's caustic political scene has been dominated for over a decade by 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 rural voters, Thaksin's parties have won every national election since 2001.

Yet their elected governments have been repeatedly knocked from power by protests, coups and court rulings favored by Bangkok's military-allied elite.

Analysts say the ruling junta is determined to curb Pheu Thai's influence in the next election and has rewritten a charter that hampers larger parties and shrinks the clout of elected politicians.

The new constitution replaces a once-elected senate with a fully appointed upper house that reserves several spots for military leaders.

It also includes a loophole that would allow parliament to install an unelected premier – an arrangement observers say junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha is gunning for.

At least one new party registered on Friday openly pledged to back that move.

"Our party supports a non-MP for Prime Minister but if Prayut joins a political party we will reconsider," Thanapat Sukkasem, who registered the "Thai People Reform Party", told local media. –