Yingluck tearfully urges protesters to accept proposed election

Protesters demand she resign within 24 hours as snap polls met with distrust, but Thai PM says she has backed down to them enough

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 10:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 12:36pm

Watch: An emotional Thai PM pleads with protesters' to clear the streets

Her eyes welling with tears, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pleaded on Tuesday for demonstrators to clear the streets and support a snap election, but defiant protest leaders called for her to step down within 24 hours.

After weeks of sometimes violent street rallies, protesters rejected her call on Monday for a general election and said she should be replaced by an unelected “people’s council”, a proposal that has stoked concern that Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy may abandon the democratic process.

Yingluck said she would not step down and would continue her duties as caretaker prime minister until the election, which is set for February 2.

On Tuesday, she held a cabinet meeting at an army club.

“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 in.

“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 she has faced from weeks of protests.

Yingluck, a 46-year-old former businesswoman, had no political experience before entering a 2011 election that she won by a landslide, largely on the back of rural support.

She called a snap election on Monday to try to defuse the kingdom’s political crisis, but protesters vowed to keep up their “people’s revolution” as an estimated 140,000 demonstrators flooded the streets of Bangkok.

By dissolving parliament and calling a new election that her party is likely to win, the embattled premier aims to cool public anger without bowing to the demonstrators’ demands to suspend the country’s democratic system.

The king has officially endorsed the elections, and a royal decree set the election for February 2, more than two years before the government was expected to finish its term.

Protest leaders, however, said they were not satisfied and pledged to rid Thailand of the influence of her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon-turned-premier who was ousted by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago and lives overseas.

Addressing a cheering crowd from a newly erected stage near the government headquarters, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced plans to set up a parallel government and told supporters they should be prepared to set up camp at the site.

“We will select a people’s prime minister and set up a government of the people and a people’s assembly to replace parliament,” said Suthep, who faces an arrest warrant for insurrection.

Suthep envisioned a body that could redraft the kingdom’s laws in preparation for an eventual election after at least eight months. In a rambling speech to supporters, Suthep declared a “people’s revolution” and a chance for the country to “start over”.

The police would be replaced with “security volunteers”, he said. A new constitution would be written that would ban populist policies of the type that Thaksin has employed. And a “people’s council” would replace parliament.

Watch: Thai PM rejects protesters' demand to step down


Yingluck may run

The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.

His overthrow in 2006 by generals loyal to the king ushered in years of political turmoil and rival street protests by the royalist “yellow shirts” and Thaksin’s supporters, known as the “red shirts”.

If this government is deposed, it will be an outcome of a so-called ‘people’s coup’ by the electoral minority
Thailand expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thaksin – who once described Yingluck as his “clone” – is widely considered the de facto leader of the ruling party, angering his foes.

Yingluck’s Puea Thai party said she was likely to be its candidate for prime minister again in the upcoming election.

Because of the deep affection that the governing party has in the north and northeast of the country, scholars say, it would be very difficult for the Democrat Party to reverse its two-decade losing streak in national elections.

In the last elections, held in July 2011, the governing party received 15.7 million votes, compared with 11.4 million for the Democrats. During his term, Thaksin had instituted universal health care and microloans to farmers that were very popular among rural voters.

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election in more than a decade, while the opposition Democrat Party – whose members resigned en masse Sunday because they could not achieve anything in parliament – has not won an elected majority in about two decades.

Democrat Party officials said on Monday that they had not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming election, which must be held within 60 days of the house’s dissolution.

Prolonged conflict

“If this government is deposed, it will be an outcome of a so-called ‘people’s coup’ by the electoral minority,” said Thailand expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

“We will see more polarisation – and the makings of a prolonged civil conflict,” added Thitinan, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

If Yingluck is overthrown, “we will see most likely the return of the red shirts to Bangkok and when they unleash their wrath this time, it will be much more cataclysmic than what we saw in the uprising in 2009-2010,” Thitinan said.

While many areas of Bangkok remained peaceful and unaffected by the protests, the city’s historic district, where demonstrators have gathered, witnessed budding scenes of anarchy.

Fearing confrontation with protesters, police forces withdrew from the area, leaving demonstrators to direct tangled traffic at intersections. Trash built up on sidewalks, motorcycles ignored traffic rules even more than usual, cars triple-parked with impunity and protesters erected barriers to roads they wanted closed off.

'We don't want elections'

Around 140,000 people were estimated to have joined the protests, according to the government’s Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order, which was set up to deal with the unrest.

“We don’t want politics any more -- no elections. Only the protesters can choose the next government. We choose, then the king appoints them,” said one demonstrator who did not want to be named.

Among the mass of protesters Monday were employees of the national carrier, Thai Airways; a large contingent of graduates from the country’s most prestigious universities; members of an ascetic Buddhist sect; ultra-royalists; and many people from southern Thailand, a stronghold of the opposition.

Ainaththacha Wirujpotisontorn, a young university graduate from Bangkok, said her grandparents disapproved of her attending the protest.

“We don’t talk about politics because it ends up with a fight,” she said.

With her was a graphic designer, Suteerapat Luangsinsiri, whose office was closed so that employees could join the protest.

“We know that Thailand has a lot of corruption – we tolerated it for many years,” Suteerapat said. “But it’s gone over the limit.”

The demonstrations were triggered by an amnesty bill, since dropped by Yingluck’s ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for Thaksin’s return.

The former premier went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated.