Main Thai opposition party divided over running in election

BANGKOK Tue Dec 17, 2013 4:35am EST

1 of 6. Thai national flags flutter as an anti-government protester stands near Government House in Bangkok December 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party reappointed former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva as its leader on Tuesday but members could not agree on whether to run in an early election or stick with street protesters who want to reform the political system.

The protesters, backed by the Thai elite and Bangkok's middle class, want to force through political reforms before the snap election called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Their aim is to eradicate the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother and the power behind her government.

Democrat lawmakers resigned from parliament this month to join the street protests led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister under Abhisit until 2011.

Some agree with his call for reforms to be implemented before another election can be held. But others believe their party, Thailand's oldest, should respect the democratic process and take part in the election, called for February 2.

"There will be no conclusion today as to whether the Democrat Party will run," Abhisit told reporters as the two-day meeting was drawing to an end. "We are tired enough from meeting today on other matters."

The Democrats must decide by December 27 if they want to register for the vote.

"Abhisit's dilemma is he could be in big trouble with the protesters if he does go ahead with elections as most protesters are from his constituency," said political analyst Kan Yuenyong at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.

"Abhisit is in a tough position because his inclination would be to boycott no matter what, as his party is bound to lose the election. Others in his party want to restructure the Democrats and feel duty-bound to run on February 2," Kan said.

"There is a power struggle going on and Abhisit, who has been the party's poster boy for so long, is trying to exert control over a fractured Democrat Party."

Thaksin is a former prime minister who was ousted by the military in 2006 after a series of election victories won with the support of the urban and rural poor, whose living standards he raised through cheap healthcare and other policies.

The Puea Thai Party of Yingluck Shinawatra, who is caretaker prime minister until the election, is well placed to win again because of Thaksin's bedrock of support in the populous, rural north and northeast.

She won a landslide victory in 2011. Both that campaign and her subsequent administration have been heavily influenced by Thaksin even though he chooses to live in exile in Dubai because he faces a jail sentence for abuse of power handed down in 2008. He maintains his trial was politically motivated.

ARMY STAYS NEUTRAL

Suthep's program remains vague and it is unclear how long it would take his proposed "people's council" to implement any reforms.

He wants to wipe out vote-buying and electoral fraud and has also promised "forceful laws to eradicate corruption", decentralization, the end of "superficial populist policies that enable corruption" and the reform of "certain state agencies such as the police force".

Suthep's protest gained impetus in early November after Yingluck's government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

The politically powerful military has rebuffed Suthep's call for it to intervene on his side and has offered to help hold a "fair and clean" election next year.

The military has staged or attempted 18 coups over the past 80 years, intervening in politics in support of the establishment, which includes royalists and old-money families that have backed the protests.

Military sources say Suthep is backed by two powerful retired generals, a former defense minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda. Both have a history of enmity with Thaksin and remain influential in the military establishment.

As deputy premier under Abhisit, Suthep authorized a military crackdown to end weeks of anti-government protests by Thaksin's supporters in central Bangkok in 2010. Scores of protesters died and both Abhisit and Suthep have been charged with murder in connection with the crackdown.

(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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