Thai opposition party meets to select new leaders ahead of key poll decision

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's opposition party met to select new leaders on Tuesday ahead of a key decision over a possible boycott of snap polls called by the government to mollify massive street protests.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra proposed the Feb 2 election after weeks of demonstrations against her government and her brother Thaksin - an ousted billionaire former premier who is despised by many among the Thai middle class and Bangkok elite.

Protesters, who are still on Bangkok's streets but in greatly reduced numbers, reject new elections without widespread reform to end Thaksin's influence, which they say has corrupted the kingdom's political system.

They want to establish a "People's Council" to enact reforms before elections and have called on Thailand's powerful army to back their campaign.

Lawmakers from the opposition Democrat Party resigned en masse from Parliament on Dec 8 to join the protests.

The move prompted Ms Yingluck to dissolve Parliament and deepened a political crisis which has seen daily rallies, deadly violence and tens of thousands of people swarm key government buildings.

"Today's meeting is part of reforming our party and to amend party rules and the party structure," incumbent Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said in opening remarks at the meeting. "We will name new party executives."

That new committee will decide whether the party will boycott the election, but it was unclear when that announcement will be made.

Mr Abhisit, a former prime minister, is widely tipped to hold onto his party position.

But new committee members are needed to replace Suthep Thaugsuban, who left his role as party deputy to lead the street protests, and the party secretary who also resigned.

"An election under the same regulations will produce the same Parliament members," Mr Suthep said in his nightly address late on Monday, reiterating his demand for widespread reform before polls.

The Democrats draw on deep support among Thailand's Bangkok-based elite and middle class.

But they have not won an elected majority in more than two decades, and critics argue that the only "reforms" they are interested in are those which will propel them back to power.

Analysts say a boycott of the February elections will likely prolong the political turmoil and cripple the democratic process.

Mr Abhisit was indicted for murder last week in connection with a deadly military crackdown on mass protests by the Thaskin-aligned then opposition in Bangkok three years ago.

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