Thai opposition debates whether to run in February election

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's main opposition party opened a meeting on Monday to decide whether to take part in a snap election called by the government to defuse street protests, but one senior member said reforms demanded by the protesters should be implemented first.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called the election after weeks of protests against her and her brother, ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his influence on Thailand's political system.

The protesters, backed by Bangkok's elite, have rejected the election and want to set up a "people's council" that would eradicate the influence of the "Thaksin regime" and introduce reforms following a decade of election wins by Thaksin or his allies with support from the urban and rural poor.

The protests have also been supported by the main opposition Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest party. All Democrat lawmakers resigned from Parliament this month and some joined the protests, including leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was prime minister from late 2008 until 2011.

But the party has yet to announce its stand on the Feb 2 election. A boycott by the Democrats would rob the vote of much of its legitimacy and prolong political uncertainty.

Mr Korn Chatikavanij, widely respected as finance minister under Abhisit, said he would not be standing for the party executive at the meeting, which ends on Tuesday. His intentions are not clear and he was not immediately available for comment.

Mr Korn has crossed swords with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, another long-time Democrat lawmaker who had stepped down earlier, and has largely stayed away from his rallies, but he played down any differences in a Facebook posting.

"I agree with the need for reforms and want to see reforms before elections take place... You know well where I disagree with the protest leaders but this is a minor issue and doesn't affect our overall goal," Mr Korn wrote.

Suthep says reforms, taking in the electoral system, should be pushed through by an unelected "people's council" of people from various professions plus members nominated by his movement.

The Puea Thai Party of Yingluck Shinawatra, who remains caretaker prime minister until the election, is well placed to win again with its bedrock support in the populous rural regions in the north and north-east.

Thailand's eight-year political conflict centres on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won over the rural poor with healthcare and other policies when he was premier. The army ousted him in 2006.

Since 2008, he has chosen to live in exile rather than come home to serve a jail sentence for abuse of power, a charge he calls politically motivated.

Suthep's protest gained impetus in early November after Ms 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.

General Nipat Thonglek, the Defence Ministry's permanent secretary, said at a government-sponsored forum: "The military wants to see the Feb 2 election. If there are signs that the election will not be fair, the military is ready to make it fair and clean."

It was unclear how the military would do that, and Gen Nipat did not elaborate. But armed forces chief General Tanasak Patimapragorn said on Saturday he wanted to see a general election take place and that there should be "a central panel"to help educate the public about free and fair elections.

Army leaders have expressed neutrality in the latest crisis, but the military has a long history of intervening in politics in support of the establishment that includes generals, royalists and old-money families who have backed the protests and the opposition Democrat Party.

The military has staged or attempted 18 coups over the past 80 years, including the one to remove Thaksin.

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

As deputy premier under Abhisit, Suthep authorised a military crackdown to end weeks of anti-government protests by Thaksin 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.

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