BANGKOK — The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest and the main force behind the country’s political opposition, announced Sunday that its members would resign from Parliament and join anti-government street demonstrations, deepening the political turmoil that has left five people dead and hundreds injured over the past two weeks.
The Democrats have been deeply frustrated by their inability to win elections against the powerful political machine backed by the billionaire tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who now lives in exile. The party’s decision to withdraw from Parliament is the latest sign of the skepticism of Thailand’s democratic process that is spreading among the opposition and many members of the Thai elite.
“We cannot beat them,” said Theptai Seanapong, one of the members of Parliament who resigned Sunday. “It doesn’t matter if we raise our hands and feet in parliamentary votes, we will never win.”
The mistrust of electoral politics has echoes across the region — in Malaysia, where the governing party has heavily gerrymandered the electoral map, and in Cambodia, where the authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, has used the machinery of the state and military to bolster his power. The Cambodian opposition continues to boycott Parliament over allegations of widespread electoral fraud in July elections.
One major difference in Thailand is that there is little dispute that Thaksin’s party has won the hearts of the majority of voters. By tailoring its policies to voters in the provinces, especially in northern Thailand, scholars say, the governing Pheu Thai party has convincingly won every election since 2001.
The move by the Democrat Party to abandon the House of Representatives leaves more than 340 seats still occupied, above the threshold of 250 members needed to conduct votes. The party said 152 Democrats would resign. There is very little chance that measures backed by the government will be blocked because the governing coalition controls about 300 of the 500 seats in the House.
But the Democrat Party will now inject its resources and prestige into the volatile street protests, which are set to continue after a call for a mass gathering on Monday with the aim of taking over the prime minister’s office.
Thai news media reported on Sunday that protesters were arriving in the capital from the provinces, especially southern Thailand, the stronghold of the Democrat Party.
As Thailand’s peak tourism season gets underway, embassies have advised their citizens to avoid the protest areas, and Bangkok’s main airport has alerted travelers that they should leave for the airport at least four hours before their flights are scheduled to depart.
The Democrat Party has many grievances with Thaksin’s party, including what it considers the railroading of some spending bills, voting procedures in Parliament that a court has called illegal and the furtive passage of important laws in the early hours of the morning.
But for a party that has long cultivated a genteel and intellectual image and advocated resolving differences inside Parliament, the decision to take to the streets was contentious within its own ranks. A number of key members of the party were not present at the meeting Sunday.
Yet the party’s move has parallels — and worrying similarities, some observers believe — to a move the party made seven years ago.
Amid a campaign of street protests against Thaksin, then the prime minister, the Democrat Party boycotted elections in April 2006. Five months later, Thaksin was deposed in a military coup.
During the current round of demonstrations, protest leaders have courted the military, and many protesters have openly called for another coup. But until now, the army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has appeared wary of intervening in the crisis.
A Thai newspaper, the Post Today, reported Sunday that Prayuth had said a coup would not solve the country’s problems.
“We must be patient and seek a peaceful solution,” the paper quoted him as saying.
The protesters’ hope for royal intervention has also not had results.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has intervened in political standoffs in the past but is now ailing, did not specifically address the protests in a speech given on his 86th birthday Thursday.
Thaksin also appears to be going out of his way to patch up any perceived differences with the royal family. After several weeks of public silence, he posted a comment on his Facebook page Saturday denying claims that he had ever been disloyal to the royal family.
“I would like to insist here that I’ve never even thought to reproach any member of the royal family because I received their royal graces all along,” he said.
Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is Thaksin’s sister, said Sunday that she would consider calling elections, a move that other members of her government had rejected in recent days.
Until now, protest leaders have spurned the notion of elections, and many opposition leaders freely admit that they cannot overcome the electoral power of Thaksin’s party.
Instead, the protest leaders are calling for a system that would replace the country’s electoral democracy with a vaguely defined “people’s council,” a plan that has been widely derided by civic leaders and scholars as idealistic, unworkable and retrograde.
Yingluck said Sunday that the country would have to hold a referendum for any such plan to be considered.
Her administration has earned plaudits from foreign governments for its handling of the crisis in the face of aggressive moves by the protesters, who have taken over the Finance Ministry, occupied a large government complex on the outskirts of the city and temporarily cut power to a number of state-owned buildings, including the police headquarters.
The police say that the five deaths that occurred were caused by shootings among competing groups of protesters.
At the height of the violent confrontations between protesters and the riot police last week, the European Union said the authorities’ actions had been “restrained and proportionate.”