Early February scheduled for general election in Thailand

BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election, but anti-government protest leaders pressed ahead with mass demonstrations in Bangkok seeking to install an unelected body to run the country.

Police estimated that about 150,000 protesters were converging on Yingluck's office at Government House, extending a rally that had descended into violence before pausing late last week out of respect for the king's birthday.

Blowing whistles, they said they would oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her self-exiled brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Declaring they were unable to work with Yingluck, the main opposition Democrat Party resigned en masse from parliament on Sunday, raising the question of whether it would boycott the election, driving Thailand deeper into crisis.

Voting could go ahead without the Democrats but it would not end the deadlock if they staged a boycott, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

"This is only a short-term solution because there is no guarantee that the Democrats will come back and play by the rules," Pavin said. "It seems like Thailand is going nowhere."

In April 2006, amid mass protests, the Democrats refused to contest a snap election called by Thaksin, who was deposed by the military five months later.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva sidestepped a question on whether his party would take part. "House dissolution is the first step towards solving the problem," Abhisit, a former prime minister, told Reuters as he marched with thousands of flag-waving protesters in Bangkok's central business district. "Today, we march. I will walk with the people to Government House."

Yingluck announced the election in a televised statement. "At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election. So the Thai people will decide," she said.

The vote may be held on Feb. 2, an election commission official said.

ELECTIONS IRRELEVANT

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who was a deputy prime minister under Abhisit until 2011 but resigned from parliament to lead the rallies, dismissed the election as irrelevant. "We have not yet reached our goal. The dissolving of parliament is not our aim," Suthep told Reuters.

Aware Yingluck and Thaksin's allies would almost certainly win any election, Suthep has called for a "people's council" of appointed "good people" to replace the government.

That opens up the prospect of a minority of people in Thailand, a country of 66 million people with the second-biggest economy in Southeast Asia, dislodging a democratically elected leader, and this time without help from the military.

"She dissolved parliament so now this is a lame duck government, but she is still in power, so it is a dangerous lame duck," said Somchai Kasemporn, 51, a traditional medicine doctor from Bangkok on the march to Government House.

"The question is: does she even have the legitimacy to dissolve parliament? This is all about a crooked man, Thaksin, who rules for profit and thinks that because he has votes, he is the winner."

The protests follow nearly a decade of rivalry between forces aligned with the Bangkok-based establishment and those who support Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won huge support in the countryside with pro-poor policies.

Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid a graft conviction but has remained closely involved with his sister's government. The protests were sparked last month by a government bid to introduce an amnesty that would have expunged his conviction.

Yingluck's Puea Thai Party won the last election in 2011 by a landslide, enjoying widespread support in the north and northeast, Thailand's poorest regions. The pro-establishment Democrat Party has not won an election since 1992.

Yingluck, Thailand's first female prime minister, will stand again. "She will definitely run," said Jarupong Ruangsuwan, head of her party. "We want the Democrat Party to take part in elections and not to play street games."

Suthep has told his supporters they have to take back power from what he calls the illegitimate "Thaksin regime" and that they cannot rely on the army to help.

The politically powerful army, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, has said it does not want to get involved, although it has tried to mediate.

The Thai baht rose to 32.05 per dollar in reaction to Yingluck's announcement but then slipped back to around 32.15 when comments from Suthep and others made it clear an early election might not end the crisis.

The stock market reacted in the same way, adding more than 1 per cent in early trade, then slipping back. It was up 0.2 per cent at 0840 GMT.