BANGKOK -- Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party said Saturday that it would boycott February's general election, deepening a weeks long political crisis over protesters' efforts to oust the government and force political reforms.
The party's leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced the boycott after a meeting of party executives, saying the decision was made in order to ensure that Thailand's government will "represent the people once again."
A spokesman for the ruling party said the Democrats were guided by the knowledge that they knew they would lose the election.
The Democrats' position reflects the stand taken by street protesters demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down ahead of the elections. The demonstrators want an appointed interim government to institute reforms before any new polls are held.
The Democrats, who are closely allied with the protest movement, also led an election boycott in 2006 that helped destabilize the government and paved the way for a military coup that ousted then- Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother.
Abhisit said he had "to accept the truth that the people believe that even if the Democrat Party runs in this election, they believe they will be not be able to reform the country."
"We are choosing the harder path, making the long-term decision to represent the people once again," he said.
The Democrat Party has not won a national election since 1992, while Thaksin and his allies have won each one held since 2001.
The protest movement, led by a former senior member of the Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, demands that the Feb. 2 polls not be held if Yingluck stays on as caretaker prime minister. Abhisit, however, distanced his party from the position of the so-called People's Democratic Reform Committee, saying the Democrats respected the concept of elections.
Promphong Nopparit, a spokesman for Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai Party, said that the Democrats' action was not unexpected, and that it was taken because they knew they would lose.
"It is a political game," Promphong said. "In the end, they have the same objective, which is to overthrow Yingluck's government and overthrow the democratic system."
In 2006, Thaksin called early elections to try to defuse calls for his resignation on grounds of alleged corruption and abuse of power. His party won, but the three parliamentary opposition parties boycotted the polls and millions of voters marked an abstention box on their ballots as a protest against the prime minister.
The boycott and abstentions meant that in some constituencies, winners could not be certified because they failed to attain a legal minimum share of the registered vote. The inconclusive results left Parliament unable to convene.
After King Bhumibol Adulyadej publicly lectured judges that they had a responsibility to end the deadlock, the nation's top courts annulled the polls, compounding Thaksin's troubles.
Circumstances now are changed. An amendment to the election law apparently makes it less likely that Parliament could not be convened. Due to poor health, the 86-year-old monarch is also less likely to play an active role. And while the courts, bastions of conservatism, remain hostile to Thaksin, Thaksin's supporters are a now a huge and better organized force, and have shown they are capable of causing chaos of their own.
Earlier Saturday, Yingluck formally proposed a plan for making political reforms following the election. It included having election candidates take an oath to support the creation of a reform council immediately after taking office; having the council's representatives come from all walks of life at local and national levels; and mandating that the council finish its work within two years.
Thailand has been wracked by sometimes violent political conflict since the coup that toppled billionaire Thaksin, who has lived in self-imposed exile since 2008 to avoid jail time on a corruption conviction.
The protesters say Thai politics are hopelessly corrupt under Thaksin's continuing influence, and that he buys his electoral support from the country's urban and rural poor. They believe that traditional one-man, one-vote democracy doesn't work because the poor are not educated enough to choose responsible leaders.
Thaksin's supporters say he is disliked by Bangkok's elite because he has shifted power away from the traditional ruling class.
The protests, which started Oct. 31, have drawn crowds as large as 150,000-200,000 people. Demonstrators have forced their way into government compounds, temporarily occupying several of them. The government has been relatively restrained in response, and Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament earlier this month to try to end the crisis.
Protest leaders have called for another major rally and march on Sunday. They have also hinted they might try to disrupt the registration of election candidates, which begins Monday.