From ornate staterooms once used to host dignitaries including US President Barack Obama, Thailand’s opposition protesters are plotting the appointment of an unelected premier in a move government supporters warn could spark civil war.
Six months after they launched their campaign, triggering violence that has left 25 dead and hundreds wounded on both sides, demonstrators believe they have one foot inside the seat of power – and the other rooted in the street.
In a highly symbolic challenge to the authority of the wounded administration, the protesters have set up base inside a wing of the largely abandoned Government House, where they are now holding press conferences for the international media.
“It is urgent and necessary for the country to have a new prime minister and government to run the country,” protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban – wanted by police for insurrection – declared on Tuesday in a cavernous room adorned with chandeliers and portraits of the revered king.
Thailand’s first female premier Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office last week along with nine cabinet ministers in a controversial court ruling denounced by her supporters as part of a “judicial coup”.
The remnants of her government are clinging to power, leaving the two sides as deadlocked as ever.
It is the latest twist in a political conflict stretching back to a military coup in 2006 that removed Yingluck’s elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra as premier.
Thaksin later fled the country to avoid jail for a corruption conviction – charges he claims were politically motivated – but is accused of pulling the strings of power from his base in Dubai.
The opposition is now counting on the upper house of parliament to complete the task of ending the political dominance of the billionaire Shinawatra family, which has lasted more than a decade – punctuated by a coup and court rulings.
It wants the Senate to invoke Article 7 of the constitution and seek the king’s blessing for the appointment of a “neutral” premier to replace caretaker Prime Minister Niwattamrong Boonsongpaisan, who was picked by the remainder of Yingluck’s cabinet.
The protesters argue that the upper chamber Senate is the only functioning state assembly, with the lower house dissolved since December.
But it is unclear if the vaguely worded Article 7 has a legal basis while Niwattamrong’s government is still in power.
The caretaker premier insists he retains authority until there are new elections – scheduled for July 20. Experts believe Shinawatra’s ruling Puea Thai party would win.
“We do not want violence. We do not want any killings. We could prevent them [from using Government House] but on the other hand, you may face violence,” Niwattamrong told foreign reporters this week at the government’s emergency base at a defence ministry building in northern Bangkok.
Voters in the poor but populous north and northeast have helped return Thaksin parties to power in every election completed since 2001.
Polls held in February were voided after disruption by opposition protesters.
Any move to hand power to an unelected regime would be incendiary to pro-government ‘red shirts’, now encamped in a Bangkok suburb, who have warned it could spark civil war.
Observers say the power play inside the upper chamber is being corralled by the acting Senate speaker – and renowned anti-Thaksin figure – Surachai Liangboonlertchai.
He has been holding talks in the Senate all week, including with Suthep, and has set a deadline of Friday to unveil his “roadmap” through the crisis.
“Surachai may decide to be the gatekeeper through which a request to the palace to invoke Article 7 is made,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
Hundreds of anti-government supporters are dug in around Government House, cocooned within fortifications topped with sandbags and razor wire.
Protest leaders say the move into the government compound reflects their status as representatives of the majority, although they are reluctant to put their claim to the test at the ballot box.
“This building is a symbol that should function for the interests of the country and its people,” protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told reporters in a marble-floored reception room in the annex.
“The people inside should be working for the people outside.”
The anti-government demonstrators, the core of whom are from the Bangkok elite and royalist south, say new polls cannot be held without reforms to end alleged nepotism and graft by Yingluck’s family.
Thaksin’s supporters accuse Suthep of leading a power grab on behalf of a rich elite fearful of losing their stake in Thailand’s future, especially as the reign of the beloved-but-ailing king enters its twilight years.
Government House has been out of bounds to state officials for months. Its once sculpted lawn is shaggy and lumps of debris from the sometimes violent protests dot the driveway.
“If Suthep wants to sit and work there, he has to win an election,” said Prompong Nopparit, a spokesman for the Puea Thai party.
“He is smashing the hearts of the Thai people. His action destroys the democratic system – it is the same as dictatorship.”