Bangkok (AFP) - Nearly 40 new Thai political parties submitted names and logos on the opening day of party registration in Bangkok on Friday, 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 AFP.
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 the bids.
Yet the junta has refused to fully lift its ban on political activity, curtailing any further organising 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 pro-establishment 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 governments have been repeatedly knocked from power by protests, coups and court rulings favoured by Bangkok's military-allied elite.
Analysts say the junta is bent on curbing Pheu Thai's influence in the next government and has rewritten a charter that hampers larger parties and shrinks the clout of elected politicians.
The new constitution 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.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University, said the junta's charter was "clearly designed to prevent bigger parties from success and to keep the party system weak and fragmented."
"The post-election government is likely to be a motley coalition under military influence... perhaps headed by a military general or proxy, such as Prayut himself," he added.