BANGKOK (AFP) - Negotiations on a roadmap to elections in Thailand following months of political turmoil suffered a major setback Tuesday as the opposition pulled out of rare multi-party talks at the last minute.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is pushing for new polls as soon as possible to bolster her precarious position in the face of a series of legal threats that could force her from office.
The kingdom has been without a fully functioning government or parliament since December, and a general election held in February was voided after opposition demonstrators disrupted voting.
The nation has been shaken by months of political violence that has left 25 people dead and hundreds wounded, including many anti-government protesters, in grenade attacks and shootings.
The Election Commission (EC) called the talks to discuss a new election date with political rivals including the main opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the last round of voting.
But a day after describing the talks as "the most opportune time to put aside our party views", Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva announced shortly before the meeting began that he would not be going. "I will not attend the meeting because of security," he told AFP without specifying the nature of the concerns. "No one from the Democrats will attend."
On the eve of the meeting, Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai Party decried a "conspiracy" by her opponents to thwart new polls. In a statement the party said certain groups and political parties "don't want democracy" and are trying to create a political vacuum so they can appoint their own unelected leader.
The EC - which has been accused by government supporters of siding with the opposition - says it needs several months at least to organise new polls, leaving the country in legislative limbo.
EC chairman Supachai Somcharoen said at the start of the talks that the meeting would be "important for solving the country problems".
But without the participation of the opposition, hopes of a breakthrough were fading.
Representatives of more than 50 other political parties joined the talks, according to election officials.
Opposition protesters have threatened to disrupt any new polls. Dozens of anti-government demonstrators rallied outside the Bangkok hotel where the talks were taking place Tuesday, demanding "reform before election".
Ms Yingluck, who won a landslide election victory in 2011, could be ordered to step down within weeks in connection with two legal cases under consideration by the Constitutional Court and an anti-corruption panel.
Thailand's first female premier is accused of the alleged improper transfer of a top civil servant as well as dereliction of duty linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme that critics say is infested with corruption. Her supporters see the moves as an attempted power grab.
The backdrop is an eight-year struggle between a royalist establishment - backed by parts of the judiciary and the military - and Yingluck's family, which has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of Thailand.
Ms Yingluck's "Red Shirt" supporters have vowed to take to the streets again to defend her administration, raising fears of a bloody new chapter in Thailand's long political crisis.
Mass protests by the Red Shirts in 2010 triggered a military crackdown under Abhisit's government that left dozens dead.
A senior figure in the red-clad movement, Thida Thavornseth, urged followers Tuesday to be ready for another "long protest".
The opposition protesters want Yingluck to resign to make way for an unelected "people's council" to oversee political reforms.