BANGKOK, Thailand – Hundreds of aspiring politicians, including a masked costumed hero, registered on Monday, February 4, for Thailand's first election since the 2014 coup, promising a colorful cast of candidates stumping for political parties both old and new.
Since the coup, the military has rewritten the constitution, clamped down on dissent and appointed allies across the bureaucracy.
But recent days have seen echoes of Thailand's formerly rambunctious politics, with outdoor political announcements, campaign posters and loudspeakers on vans touting political slogans as the country gears up for the much-anticipated election after more than 4 years of junta rule.
Monday's registration was marked by a festive atmosphere, with supporters of dozens of groups waving neon banners and party flags as they entered a stadium in central Bangkok.
While familiar faces abound, such as leaders from political powerhouse Pheu Thai and the army-aligned Phalang Pracharat, there were also quirky entrants, including a member of an obscure new party Phalang Prachatipatai – or "Power of Democracy" – who dressed as American pop culture icon the "Lone Ranger."
Another hopeful for the Action Coalition for Thailand party carried posters of himself dressed as Superman.
Shinawatra name 'gimmick'
But the levity displayed by some belied an underlying resolve to restore a democratically elected government after former premier Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted by the military.
"We stand firm with our principle to stop the continuing power of the (military government)," said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, head of upstart party Future Forward which advocates for the military to be divorced from politics.
"On March 24, the Thai people must raise their voice to stop the military regime."
Pheu Thai, Thailand's biggest political party, also wants a "free and fair (election) without any interference from the government," said party stalwart Sudarat Keyuraphan.
In the last election, the party backed ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, and it remains to be seen if it will be able to capitalize on previous electoral successes without the star power of Yingluck and her older brother Thaksin, who was himself pushed out in a military takeover in 2006.
Both live in self-exile to avoid what they say are politically motivated court charges.
But their names will still be on the ballot: Thaksin-aligned Pheu Chart Party currently has over a dozen registered candidates who legally changed their first names to mimic the siblings.
"Right now, there are 15 members who changed their names... 10 men who changed to Thaksin and 5 women to Yingluck," party spokeswoman Ketpreeya Kaewsanmuang told Agence France-Presse, adding the party was surprised to hear of the name changes.
"It's their personal choice... you can call it a gimmick as well."
The move is likely to attract votes from hardcore Thaksin supporters in certain parts of the country, where the billionaire is still revered for the populist policies he enacted as premier, such as universal healthcare and debt relief for farmers.
Less than ten weeks from the election, it remains unclear if junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha will stand as a candidate for prime minister.
Even if the junta's rivals are successful in the polls, any new civilian government is expected to be hamstrung by the military-scripted constitution.
Meanwhile, the pro-army Phalang Pracharat on Monday branded itself as "the best choice for Thais who want to move past conflicts," said leader Uttama Savanayana, who recently resigned as industry minister.
Phalang Pracharat last week formally invited junta leader Prayut to stand as its candidate for prime minister.
The gruff general must formally submit his interest to the Election Commission by Friday, February 8. – Rappler.com