Her eyes welling with tears, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday pleaded for anti-government protesters to clear the streets after she called a snap election, but protests leaders said she should step down within 24 hours.
After weeks of sometimes violent street rallies, protesters dismissed her call on Monday for a general election and said she should be replaced by an unelected “people’s council,” which has stoked concern that Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy may abandon the democratic process.
Yingluck yesterday insisted she would not step down and said she would continue her duties as caretaker prime minister until the election, which is set for Feb. 2.
“Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask that you stop protesting and that all sides work towards elections,” Yingluck told reporters as she went into a Cabinet meeting held at an army club. “I have backed down to the point where I don’t know how to back down any further.”
Tears briefly formed in her eyes as she spoke, before she quickly composed herself — perhaps a glimpse of the emotional toll of weeks of protests.
The protesters, a motley collection aligned with Bangkok’s royalist elite, want to oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her brother, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006 and has chosen to live in exile rather than serve a jail term for abuse of power.
Thaksin was convicted in absentia of graft in 2008, but he dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
He is widely seen as the power behind 46-year-old Yingluck’s government, sometimes holding meetings with the Cabinet by webcam.
In a speech to supporters late on Monday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban gave Yingluck 24 hours to step down.
“We want the government to step aside and create a power vacuum in order to create a people’s council,” said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protest group. Suthep has said this council would be made up of appointed “good people.”
By mid-afternoon yesterday, only 6,000 protesters were in the historic part of Bangkok around Government House where Yingluck’s office is located, police said, a far cry from the 160,000 that converged peacefully on the complex on Monday.
Yesterday was a public holiday in Thailand and Yingluck attended a ceremony to mark Constitution Day in parliament, but only about 1,500 protesters turned up there, police said.
Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party enjoys widespread support in the populous north and northeast, Thailand’s poorest regions. The party said she would again be its candidate for prime minister.
In contrast, the protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s royalist upper and middle classes, including civil servants and prominent business families, along with people from the south where the opposition Democrat Party has long held sway.
“What we’re seeing is a true power tussle with both sides, the government and the protesters, trying to pull the country’s two most powerful institutions — the monarchy and the military — on their side,” Siam Intelligence Unit political analyst Kan Yuenyong said.
“The best scenario would be if the protesters and the opposition accept the election and take part, but anything could happen between now and then including intervention from independent organisations, the judiciary or the military,” Kan said.