Start of process raises hopes for long-delayed polls following 2014 coup
Thailand begins registration of parties for elections
At least 38 prospective political parties have submitted registrations to Thailand's Election Commission after the military government that has run the country since 2014 allowed new parties to form ahead of polls supposed to be held by next February.
Registration is just the start of the process, and does not automatically mean the parties have been officially recognised. They must satisfy a raft of requirements within 180 days and still need the junta's permission to operate. Submissions are being accepted from Friday until March 31.
There is scepticism about the announced election date because several previously promised deadlines were pushed back, and in announcing the February date last week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha suggested it is conditional on the political situation remaining calm.
There is also speculation that some parties are being established to support the military's continued dominance over the government. They would support having Mr Prayuth remain the country's leader under a new constitutional clause that allows the next parliament to choose an unelected "outsider" prime minister.
After ousting an elected government in May 2014, the military regime introduced a ban on political activities, citing the need to avoid disorder. Thailand had been wracked by occasionally violent political fighting between supporters and opponents of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra after he was ousted in a 2006 coup. Disruptive street protests by anti-Thaksin demonstrators beginning in late 2013 led to the takeover by the army, which has sought to prevent a comeback by Thaksin's powerful political machine.
Under a new Political Parties Act, introduced by the junta-appointed parliament, parties must have at least 500 registered members and 1 million baht (Dh116,764) in funds to qualify for registration.
A range of political groups were present at the Election Commission on Friday to register for the much-anticipated elections.
Election Commission secretary general Jarungvith Phumma said the turnout "shows that people have drive and belief in democracy".
Among the parties suspected of fronting for the military is the New Phalangdharma Party, whose leader, Ravee Machamadol, said that if the situation called for an outsider prime minister, that is what his party would support.
"In voting for an outsider, we will vote for the best available person, and if on that day Prayuth is the best person, then we will vote for him," he said.
Political greenhorns also turned up with the intention to contest the next election. Among them was a dog breeder, known by the nickname "Mark Pitbull", who leads the Thai Civilised Party.
"It's time to take risks. If we wait, who are we waiting for, other than ourselves to do it?" he said. "I'm putting myself in the race to inspire young people to be brave and join the field."
Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science professor at Ubon Ratchatani University, said he had doubts about how much influence the new political parties could have over the future of Thai politics, given that the junta has instituted legal changes to maintain its influence over government, including the establishment of appointed government bodies to dilute the power of elected officials.
He said, however, that the prospect of elections is cause for some optimism.
"I would also argue that although new voices can't win a majority, they can at least represent new generations in the parliament and assist in maintaining the balance of power," he said.