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Thai Democrats pick ex-PM Abhisit as leader ahead of election

Move follows start of new party by Shinawatra family

The Democrat Party said on Saturday that incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva won the party leadership election.   © AP

BANGKOK -- A major opposition party in Thailand has backed a former prime minister as its leader, the latest move by parties to prepare for a long-delayed general election now expected to come in February.

The Democrat Party said on Saturday that incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva won the party leadership election. The core members of the party are expected to endorse the result on Sunday, officially retaining the former prime minister as their chief.

The coming general election, which would mark Thailand's return to democracy following a 2014 military coup, is shaping up as a three-way race among supporters of the ruling junta and royalist establishment, the populist forces led by the Pheu Thai Party, and other parties such as the Democrats.

The junta, led by ex-general Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, had said an election would be held sometime between February and May. Political parties are now moving quickly to prepare amid indications that the vote will occur soon.

"The Election Commission is expected to hold the national election on Feb. 24," Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said on Thursday. An official announcement must wait until an election law under the new constitution takes effect next month, he said.

The junta will retain full power until the new cabinet is sworn in, likely by June, Wissanu said.

This time frame fits with Thailand's hosting of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit on June 22 and 23. Thailand is set to succeed Singapore as the bloc's chair in 2019, but criticism has grown over the prospect of a military leader chairing an international summit.

Political analysts expect no faction to achieve a majority of legislative seats, which means third parties like the Democrats may play a decisive role in a forming a ruling coalition with either pro-junta forces or the anti-junta side.

The Democrats have not declared whether they will side with or against the junta. But in 2010 while Abhisit was prime minister, he clashed with supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra -- who was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup.

Family members of Thaksin on Wednesday announced the creation of a new political party with their allies, a potentially critical move by the anti-junta grouping. Key members of the Thai Raksa Chart Party include the nephew and niece of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck, the sister of Thaksin, also was removed as prime minister in 2014, and both of them live in exile.

A Thai woman shows support for ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, who remain very popular in Thailand's low-income provinces.   © AP

Thaksin supporters so far have channeled their energy into Pheu Thai, the party he used to lead. Its populist approach has attracted many votes from low-income provinces in the northeast of Thailand. But the junta's new constitution cuts constituency seats in such provinces to weaken major political parties like Pheu Thai.

"Creating a small anti-junta party can be seen as a clever move by Thaksin to get as many seats as possible in accordance with this constitution," said Thavorn Sanniem, a member of the Democrat Party.

Pitch Pongsawat, from the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University, said the new party formed by the Shinawatras "can serve as a backup for the Pheu Thai Party."

Pheu Thai faces the risk of being dissolved. The junta ordered the Election Commission to investigate whether Thaksin holds a controlling influence over the party. Thai law prohibits foreign residents from controlling political parties. If the commission finds Pheu Thai guilty, the party is likely to be given a dissolution order.

But if Pheu Thai is dissolved, party members could switch to the new Thai Raksa Chart Party to run for election.

"A person like Thaksin can always find the way out to avoid the law, to avoid rules and regulation," said Jade Donavanik, chairman of the law faculty at the College of Asian Scholars in Thailand.

The pro-junta Palang Pracharat party has been relatively quiet so far. Four members of the junta cabinet joined the party in September.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has not made clear what his political future might be when the country moves to democracy.

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