"Keep out of poll", Thai Democrat chief tells army

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BANGKOK, Oct 26 (Reuters) The head of Thailand's oldest political party told the army today to keep its nose out of December's general election, saying any meddling would make it harder for the poll to heal the rifts left by last year's coup.

''They mustn't do it,'' Democrat party chief Abhisit Vejjajiva said after a leaked document from the Council for National Security (CNS), as the coup chiefs style themselves, suggested plots to smear supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The CNS has not denied the authenticity of the document, which includes guidelines for a rumour campaign suggesting Thaksin wanted to get rid of Thailand's constitutional monarchy and replace it with a presidential-style system.

After more than 60 years on the throne, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 79, is genuinely revered by most of Thailand's 65 million people and any public belittling of his role as the central pillar of the nation is an absolute taboo.

''The CNS and the government must come clean,'' Abhisit told Reuters in an interview. ''We want a fair election. The only way to heal the rift is to uphold the principles of democracy and the rule of law.'' The Democrat party, founded 61 years ago, is likely to emerge from the Dec. 23 poll with roughly the same number of seats as the People Power Party (PPP), a vehicle for the rump of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party which was disbanded for election fraud.

Neither is seen getting close to an absolute majority, suggesting a messy coalition with one or more minor parties.

Although analysts say he stands to gain from any undermining of the PPP, Abhisit urged the army to lift the martial law imposed after the Sept. 19, 2006 coup and still in place in a third of provinces, most of them Thaksin strongholds in the northeast.

''It only makes the accusations of unfair elections more credible, so you might as well get rid of it,'' Abhisit said. ''I didn't see any exercise of martial law during the referendum, so why keep it? It just becomes a target for attacks.'' The CNS argues it needs to retain martial law to combat drug smuggling on its northeast frontiers.

Abhisit also poured scorn on draconian restrictions imposed on parties by the Election Commission this week, the first of the official campaign period, saying they were unworkable and must be changed.

The new rules force broadcasters to give equal airtime to as many as 60 parties likely to be running -- effectively meaning none gets any -- and bar candidates from using campaign buses or trucks to spread their message to voters.

''It's simply not possible to keep things as they stand,'' he said. ''It's not practical, and I think it shows the inexperience of the commissioners.'' REUTERS SS KP1535

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