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Thai opposition meets to decide on election boycott

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[December 21, 2013]  By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat

BANGKOK (Reuters)  Thailand's main opposition party met on Saturday to decide whether or not to boycott a February election and join anti-government rallies seeking to scuttle the poll and force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office.

Yingluck called a snap election on December 9 to try to ease tensions as protests grew, but the movement against her is planning mass rallies at sites across the capital on Sunday and remains determined to bring her down.

Opposition Democrat Party lawmakers resigned from parliament this month to march with firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government that was trounced by Yingluck's Puea Thai Party in a 2011 election.

Many members support Suthep's call for reforms by an appointed "people's council" before any election is held and fear running in the poll could upset supporters, many of whom have joined the protests.

Others, however, believe a boycott would damage the credibility of the party that is popular in the south and in Bangkok, but has not won an election in two decades.


Yingluck refuses to step down and remains in charge as caretaker premier. On Saturday she accepted reforms needed to be made, but only after the February 2 election.

"The government realizes that the country needs to be reformed. However, the reforms should run in line with democratic principles," Yingluck said in a televised address.

Yingluck's troubles escalated in November when her Puea Thai Party tried to push an amnesty bill that would have nullified the graft conviction of her brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon at the heart of eight years of on-off political turmoil that has divided Thailand.

Demonstrators poured onto the streets in anger at the move and though the Senate shot down the bill and Yingluck promised not to re-introduce it, the Suthep's protests gathered momentum.

INFLUENTIAL FROM AFAR

Thousands marched in Bangkok on Thursday and Friday, demanding the end of the "Thaksin regime" and the appointment of a body of "good people" to run the country instead.

Protests against Thaksin and his allies are nothing new in Thailand. There have been multiple attempts to oust the parties he controls, despite an unassailable electoral mandate built on policies like cheap healthcare, easy loans and a raft of subsidies that have won over millions of rural poor.

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Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 coup and remains highly influential, despite having lived in self-exile since 2008.

He is reviled by a powerful minority of Thais  Bangkok's middle classes, bureaucrats, old-money conservatives and top army generals  who see him as an authoritarian crony capitalist who exploits democracy to cement his power and dole out favors for his friends and billionaire family.

The Election Commission (EC) on Friday dismissed speculation it would postpone the February 2 vote having earlier said it was concerned there could be unrest at the polls and might delay them if all parties agreed. Registration for the election starts on Monday.

About a hundred demonstrators marched on the headquarters of the Democrat Party on Saturday to urge it to boycott an election they say will be rigged and marred by vote-buying.

Yingluck floated the idea on Saturday of creating a "country reforming council" after the election, which would include politicians, academics and people from all walks of life, which would be given less than two years to provide ideas on how to implement lasting changes acceptable to all sides.

The plan is unlikely to gain much traction as it would take place after an election that is likely to return her party to power.

(Writing by Martin Petty; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

[ 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

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