Bangkok - Her eyes welling with tears, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pleaded on Tuesday for anti-government 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 Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy may abandon the democratic process.
Yingluck said she 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.
The protesters, a motley collection aligned with Bangkok's royalist elite, want to oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her brother, former premier 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.
This is the latest flare-up in almost a decade of rivalry between forces aligned with the Bangkok-based establishment and those who support Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won huge support in the countryside with pro-poor policies.
An estimated 3 000 protesters camped out overnight around Government House, where Yingluck's office is located, a day after 160 000 protesters converged peacefully on the complex.
They made no attempt to get into the grounds, which appeared to be defended by unarmed police and soldiers. The crowd could swell again on Tuesday, a public holiday in Thailand for Constitution Day.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party enjoys widespread support in the populous north and north-east, Thailand's poorest regions. She will be its candidate for prime minister if the party wins in February, a party official said.
In contrast, the protesters are drawn from Bangkok's 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.
The spark for this latest unrest was a government bid last month to force through an amnesty bill that would have expunged Thaksin's conviction, allowing him to return home a free man. He is widely seen as the power behind his sister's government.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's overriding aim is to get rid of what he calls the “Thaksin regime” - the extended family's influence on politics but also the people placed in senior positions around state agencies and the police who are believed to answer to him.
The protest movement, he told supporters on Monday, “cannot allow political tyranny, under the guise of majority rule, and crony, monopolistic capitalism collude to use parliamentary dictatorship to betray the trust of the people”.
Beyond the need to bypass an electoral process that seems bound to return another Thaksin-allied government, his programme for now seems sketchy.
He has spoken of police reform and the need to end what he sees as wasteful, corruption-riddled programmes such as a rice intervention scheme and huge infrastructure projects.
In a late-night speech to supporters at Government House on Monday, Suthep 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”.
Lawmakers from the main opposition Democrat Party resigned from parliament on Sunday, saying they could not work with Yingluck.
Its leaders have refused to say whether they would participate in the election. Some have marched with Suthep, including Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister until the 2011 election, with Suthep as one of his deputies.
In April 2006, amid mass protests against Thaksin, the pro-establishment Democrats refused to contest a snap election he had called. He was deposed by the military five months later.
Suthep's campaign opens up the prospect of a minority of Thailand's 66 million people dislodging a democratically elected leader, this time without help from the military.
The politically powerful army, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, has said it does not want to get involved, although it has tried to mediate. - Reuters