By Wirat Buranakanokthanasan
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's main opposition party announced on Saturday it would boycott an election in February, deepening uncertainty about the poll and fuelling a campaign to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government.
Yingluck called a snap election on December 9 to try to ease simmering tensions but the movement against her is planning mass rallies across Bangkok on Sunday as part of a "people's coup" to force her and the billionaire Shinawatra family out of politics.
The Democrat Party unanimously agreed during a meeting on Saturday that their participation in the election would have legitimized a democratic system it said had been distorted by those in power.
"Thai politics is at a failed stage," party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister, told reporters in announcing the decision not to run. "The Thai people have lost their faith in the democratic system."
It was not immediately clear whether the Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, would join a protest movement led by former party heavyweight, Suthep Thaugsuban, which wants to suspend democracy and install an appointed "people's council" to reform the country. Several party members, Abhisit included, have attended rallies this month.
The boycott adds to concerns that powerful forces allied with the Democrats will seek to block an election that is otherwise likely to return Yingluck's Puea Thai Party to power, and perpetuate the influence of her self-exiled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Puea Thai is the latest incarnation of a political machine controlled by the Shinawatra family, which has won every election since 2001 thanks to policies like easy loans, cheap healthcare and a raft of state subsidies.
Those giveaways won Thaksin the loyalty of millions of rural poor voters but have riled a powerful minority - Bangkok's middle classes, bureaucrats, old-money conservatives and top army generals.
Thaksin's enemies see him as an authoritarian crony capitalist who exploits democracy to cement his power and dole out favors for his wealthy business friends and family.
Suthep has asked the much-politicized military to support his movement, but it insists it is neutral and has offered to help ensure the election runs smoothly.
The Democrats were initially split on whether or not to run. Some supported Suthep's call for reforms by an appointed "people's council", but others worried a boycott would damage the credibility of the party and cast it into the political wilderness for four years.
Yingluck remains in charge as caretaker premier and has refused to quit, arguing that constitution does not allow her to resign. On Saturday she accepted reforms needed to be made, but only after the election.
"The government realizes that the country needs to be reformed. However, the reforms should run in line with democratic principles," Yingluck said in a televised address.
She floated the idea of forming a "country reforming council" after the election comprised of multiple stakeholders to provide ideas on how to implement changes acceptable to all sides. It is unlikely to appease her opponents.
Yingluck's troubles escalated in November when Puea Thai tried to push an amnesty bill that would have nullified the graft conviction of Thaksin, who lives in self-exile in Dubai but remains central to the eight years of on-off political turmoil that has divided Thailand.
Demonstrators poured onto the streets in anger at the move and though the Senate shot down the bill and Yingluck promised not to re-introduce it, Suthep's protests gathered momentum.
Thousands marched in Bangkok on Thursday and Friday, demanding the end of the "Thaksin regime".
Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protest group said on Saturday it supported an election, but only after reforms it wants to spearhead were implemented.
Protests against Thaksin and his allies are nothing new in Thailand. Street movements in 2006 and 2008 led to interventions by courts or the army that toppled governments he led or controlled, angering his supporters, who accuse powerful elites of leaning on Thailand's institutions to subvert democracy.
The Election Commission on Friday dismissed speculation it would postpone the February 2 vote having earlier said it was concerned there could be unrest at the polls and might delay them if all parties agreed.
The Democrats' boycotted an election called during similar protests in 2006, when Thaksin sought to renew his mandate. His party won in a landslide, but the result was annulled on a technicality. He was toppled in a coup several months later.
(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)