The red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra have given the government an ultimatum: call elections by midday on Monday or face crippling mass demonstrations.
The protests which began on Friday and involved more than 150,000 people by Sunday have been peaceful, and the “red shirts” say they will remain that way. But Monday’s march could stoke anger by paralyzing already-congested streets in Bangkok.
“We will march over there, brothers and sisters. We will go to the infantry to get an answer from Abhisit himself,” said Nattawut Saikua, a leader of the protest group, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
“With this many people on the streets, I don’t see how he still thinks he has any legitimacy,” he added.
Foreign investors worry any violence will derail a nascent recovery in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy but they have expressed confidence in Thailand’s financial markets by snapping up local stocks in recent weeks.
That view is based on three factors: Thai assets are already trading at a substantial risk discount, the economy has rebounded well from the global downturn despite bouts of unrest, and Abhisit is widely expected to survive the showdown.
Protest leaders hope a powerful display of popular support will force Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call an election that Thaksin allies would be well-placed to win. They also want to convince wavering partners in his coalition to break away.
Abhisit and his coalition are unlikely to bow to the pressure, the latest in a seemingly intractable political crisis pitting the military, urban elite and royalists — who wear yellow shirts at protests and back Abhisit — against mainly rural Thaksin supporters who wear red and say they are disenfranchised.
Most of the protesters traveled from Thailand’s poor, rural provinces, piling into pick-up trucks, cars and even river boats, and illustrating Thaksin’s influence even after his ouster in a 2006 coup, graft conviction and self-imposed exile. Take a Look on the political crisis in Thailand.
RISKS TO COME
Abhisit must go to the polls by the end of next year.
Thaksin’s allies are likely to win those elections just as they have won every poll held since 2001. The military and urban elite are likely to seek to overturn that result, possibly with a coup, as in 2006, or a judicial intervention, as in 2008.
In his weekly television address on Sunday, Abhisit indicated immediate elections were unlikely, citing the tense political climate and his government’s parliamentary majority.
Several main roads near government offices were blocked off either by protesters’ pick-up trucks and motorcycles or cordoned off by police and soldiers. Authorities deployed 50,000 police, soldiers and other security personnel across the city.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban said protesters risk arrest if they disrupt life for Bangkok residents.
Last April, protests by Thaksin supporters triggered Thailand’s worst street violence in 17 years. In recent months, they have emphasized non-violence — and Thaksin’s rhetoric has softened since last year when he spoke of a “revolution.”
But without causing a big disruption, they may have trouble forcing elections, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a political historian at Thammasart University. “It’s hard to pressure the government if the crowd is under control,” he said.
The protesters say the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous coalition government.
Adding to their anger, Thailand’s top court seized $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s assets last month, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
Thailand was plagued by political upheaval in 2008 when yellow-shirted protesters who opposed Thaksin’s allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and then blockaded Bangkok’s international airport until a court ousted the government.