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Thai protesters march to oust PM, postpone election

An anti-government protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a rally at a major business district in Bangkok December 19,
An anti-government protester holds a placard as she gathers with others during a rally at a major business district in Bangkok December 19,

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters resumed marches in Bangkok on Friday, trying to energies supporters in the centre of the Thai capital before a planned mass rally at the weekend to put pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.

Yingluck called a snap election last week when the protests reached their height. She remains caretaker premier until the February 2 vote but has refused to push back the date to allow the drawing-up of political reforms demanded by the protesters.

"Once the government has resigned, I would like to have other people who are neutral take charge," said protester Siriroj Oh-Prechacharn as marchers prepared to leave the main rally site at Bangkok's Democracy Monument.

About 160,000 protesters surrounded Yingluck's office on December 9 but momentum has waned since then.

The National Security Council said there were about 3,000 people at Friday's march, about half the size of the crowd when the latest round of marches kicked off on Thursday.

The Election Commission (EC) dismissed suggestions it would postpone the vote.

"We are ready to hold elections on February 2 ... today the government said it will help ensure that elections take place smoothly," said commission member Teerawat Terarotwit, following a meeting between Yingluck and EC members.

The commission had earlier expressed concern over the possibility of unrest at the polls and said it could delay them if all parties agreed.

The government says voting will go ahead as planned.

The protesters want to eradicate the influence on Thai politics of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother, who is seen as the power behind her government from his base in Dubai.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, is adored by the rural poor because of cheap healthcare and other policies brought in while he was in power.

He was toppled by the military in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile. He fled Thailand in 2008 before being sentenced to jail for abuse of power in a trial he says was politically motivated.

OPPOSITION DECISION

Yingluck won a landslide victory in 2011 and her Puea Thai Party is well placed to win the next election because of Thaksin's enduring support in the populous north and northeast.

Ranged against them are a royalist establishment, including top generals, that feels threatened by Thaksin's rise and a middle class that resents what it sees as its taxes being spent on wasteful populist policies that amount to vote-buying.

The registration of political parties begins on Monday, with attention focused on whether the main opposition Democrat Party will decide to take part.

Democrat lawmakers resigned from parliament this month to march with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who was deputy prime minister in a Democrat-led government until 2011.

Some agree with his call for reforms to be implemented before another election is held, but others believe their party, Thailand's oldest, should respect the democratic process and run for office. The party's decision is due on Saturday.

A boycott would damage the credibility of the vote and prolong uncertainty.

Suthep says the election should be postponed until reforms are implemented by a "people's council" his movement will have a say in nominating.

He says he wants to wipe out electoral fraud, eradicate corruption and reform state agencies, including the police.

Suthep's movement gained impetus in November after Yingluck's government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

(Additional Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

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