Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party yesterday announced it would boycott snap elections in the crisis-gripped kingdom, piling further pressure on the government as protesters prepare to ramp up rallies aimed at suspending democracy.
Party members -- who resigned as MPs en masse to join the demonstrations that have rocked Bangkok for weeks -- voted against participating, according to Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"The Democrats think the elections will not solve the country's problems, lead to reform, or regain people's faith in political parties," he said in a press conference following the meeting.
He added that the decision would not affect the "legitimacy" of the vote and the party would not "obstruct" polling.
Embattled premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who called the February 2 elections in an effort to cool tensions, has insisted the polls will go ahead regardless of the Democrat decision.
But the move throws Democrat backing firmly behind protesters who are calling for democracy to be paused for an unelected "people's council" to be installed to enact reforms before a future vote.
Demonstrators want to rid the country of Yingluck and the influence of her Dubai-based brother Thaksin -- an ousted billionaire ex-premier who is despised by a coalition of the southern Thai poor, Bangkok middle classes and elite.
Thailand has seen several bouts of political turmoil since Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, with rival protests sometimes resulting in bloody unrest.
"I think if the Democrats ran in the election, we might get the most votes and be able to form a government -- but then again people will be mobilised to rally against our party," former premier Abhisit added.
The boycott announcement comes a day ahead of a planned major rally by the protesters, who are led by firebrand former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban.
Suthep, who has vowed to rid Thailand of the "Thaksin regime", has dismissed the election, saying it will install another government allied to the divisive former premier.
He has appealed for army support, in a country which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.
But the military has indicated it is unlikely to intervene directly this time.
The Democrats, Thailand's oldest party, have not won an elected majority in some two decades.
The party last took power in 2008 by parliamentary vote after a court stripped Thaksin's allies of power, angering his "Red Shirt" supporters who launched mass street protests three years ago that ended in a military crackdown that left dozens dead.
Thaksin, who now lives in self-exile, is adored by many outside Bangkok, particularly in the north and northeast, for his populist policies.
But the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician is reviled by the elite, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, most recently with a landslide victory under Yingluck two years ago.
The Democrats previously boycotted elections in 2006, helping to create the political uncertainty which heralded the military intervention that ousted Thaksin.
The latest boycott could lead to a similar situation, with polls "nullified" on technical grounds, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.
But he said the party "might as well die, they would become so irrelevant" if they did not participate.
"Walking away from it, it's just bad on the part of the Democrat Party. Especially if (the) international community is now watching the Thai situation so closely," he said in comments ahead of the meeting.
On Friday the Democrats sent a letter to other parties requesting a postponement of the polls because of the ongoing protests.
But the suggestion was rejected by the ruling Puea Thai, which is widely expected to win the election.
Initial party registration for the vote begins tomorrow and lasts until December 27.
Yingluck yesterday offered to set up a body to implement reforms, in the latest olive branch to opponents.
"The government agrees that reform is needed and is willing to cooperate. We reaffirm that the reform process can go ahead alongside elections," she said in a televised address.
Demonstrators want today's gathering to be bigger than earlier protests, which have drawn at least 150,000 supporters at their peak in some of the largest rallies for years in the politically-divided kingdom.