Clutching a metal rod, Puttachai Rattanalangkan peered over a chest-high barricade of used tyres on a riverside road in central Bangkok. It was after midnight and Mr Puttachai, a 33-year-old engineer who owns a machinery plant, had joined hundreds of other male volunteers guarding the broadcasting hub of the royalist protest movement that has paralysed Thailand's government in recent weeks. Earlier in the evening, a retired army captain in uniform had drilled the guards and told them to prepare to fight pro-government activists gathered nearby. The previous week, one man died in clashes between the two sides, prompting the beleaguered government, which has been driven out of its official compound by thousands of protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), to declare a state of emergency. But as the night wore on, no attackers emerged from the shadows at the end of the road. The guards, who carried slingshots, sticks, rods and golf clubs, began to relax. Curious backpackers from nearby budget hotels milled around, snapping photos. Mr Puttachai said he had left his comfortable family home and driven to the protest camp because he wanted to show his support. When the call went out for overnight guards at ASTV, a satellite channel run by PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul, he volunteered his services. Mr Puttachai, who wears fashionable spectacles and a boyish grin, says his motivation is personal and political. He's bitterly opposed to Samak Sundaravej, who was ordered to resign as prime minister on Tuesday by the Constitutional Court for moonlighting on a television cooking show. A devout Christian, he views Mr Samak's administration as immoral and corrupt. He has also heard his father's stories of Mr Samak's role in the violent repression in 1976 of pro-democracy students. 'They [the government] think we're weak because we're middle class. That's why I came here,' he said. Echoing the opinions of PAD leaders, Mr Puttachai wants a radical rethink of Thailand's shaky democracy, to dilute the power of elected politicians and their constituents. In a future parliament, the PAD wants up to 70 per cent of seats to be set aside for appointed lawmakers who would represent professional groups and other sectors of society, giving more weight to urban elites. The poor, it seems, cannot be trusted. 'Democracy should be for people who pay taxes, who have some wealth,' Mr Puttachai says. Such a system, which the PAD calls 'new politics', would bring Thailand closer to Hong Kong's electoral model - where half the seats of the Legislative Council are directly elected and the other half are chosen through limited franchise - and reverse decades of stop-start democratic reforms punctuated by military coups. The PAD has even called for the military to play a referee role to keep politicians in line, in effect institutionalising its political powers. It's a message hammered home at PAD rallies, which are broadcast live on ASTV. Speakers accuse politicians allied to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of buying the votes of the uneducated poor and using their parliamentary majority to steamroll the minority. 'I think the majority voters have to listen to the minority ... We want a clean democracy. We don't want this prime minister and his dirty regime,' said Kriangkrai Naksuwan, 41, an advertising executive who used to live in Los Angeles. The People Power Party, which leads a six-party coalition, is the successor to Thai Rak Thai, the political party founded and led by Thaksin that a military-appointed tribunal dissolved last year after it was found guilty of campaign fraud. Thaksin fled to London last month to escape a slew of corruption court cases that he says are politically motivated. Researchers say vote buying is prevalent in rural Thailand, particularly in northern provinces that send the largest number of lawmakers to Bangkok. Efforts to stamp out the practice, including stiff penalties for politicians caught out, have led to more sophisticated methods such as rewards of mobile-phone credits and bank transfers. But many analysts believe that the success of Thai Rak Thai, which won landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005, went beyond vote buying. The party put the poor at the centre of its platform, promising subsidised health care, rural credit and other schemes, which it mostly delivered. Thaksin's forceful personality and a run of economic success sealed its grip on power, unnerving Bangkok's old-money elite and civil libertarians. This electoral machine posed a threat to middle-class voters who saw their taxes being used to shore up Thaksin's popularity. In late 2005, Mr Sondhi, a media tycoon and former business partner of Thaksin, began a campaign to discredit his former ally, whom he accused of disloyalty to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The campaign snowballed into months of paralysing street protests that precipitated the 2006 coup. As the same tensions play out, some observers argue that neither side has the interests of Thailand's poor at heart. 'This infighting between two sides is an elite conflict that doesn't get to grips with the realities of Thai society,' said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a leftist political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. These realities include a yawning gap between rich and poor, a lack of investment in rural services, and substandard education for all but a few. Some observers have long warned that social and economic disparities, as well as military meddling in politics, would weaken Thailand's nascent democracy. The PAD's solution is to let appointed elites in effect govern the country. This moralistic strain in the protest movement is echoed in Bangkok's print media, which is sympathetic to the PAD. An editorial last year in the Siam Rath newspaper opined that 'virtue must be the guiding light of our political system ... If our politicians do not have virtue in their hearts, it is impossible to create a just society. Politics will be just a fight for power, with each faction sharing the spoils of the game'. Academics who supported the 2006 military takeover as a 'necessary evil' to oust Thaksin still side with the PAD, to the dismay of politicians who argue that the power of the ballot box must be respected. 'Many academics are proposing a dictatorial system. Many of them do not believe in elections. They do not believe people can make decisions through voting,' said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former deputy prime minister under Thaksin. The PAD's version of elite rule is strongly royalist, as is the symbolism at its rallies. Many followers believe that Thaksin had a republican agenda that posed a threat to King Bhumibol, who is 80 and ailing, and his presumed successor Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Thaksin has repeatedly denied these allegations. Not all of the protesters wearing royalist yellow believe Thailand's democratic system is broken. Some PAD leaders reportedly disagree with Mr Sondhi's vision of 'new politics'. 'There are a lot of people who don't like Samak and hate Thaksin, but that doesn't mean they support the PAD's 'new politics' agenda. There are a lot of confused people trying to see a way forward,' a western diplomat said. The voices that are not heard are those of the poor, who voted in their millions for the PPP in the hope of a return to Thaksin's brand of populism. Standing in a windswept park surrounded by a ragtag group of government supporters touting machetes and sticks, Somyot Phuksakasemsuk, a social activist and former union leader, complained that Bangkok's elite had no interest in the rules of the game, only in making sure that they win every time. 'Wait for majority vote if you don't like the government. You can change the government after four years. But don't violate [the law] and use force,' he said.