Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament and called for new elections this morning in her latest attempt to appease anti-government protesters who have been taking to the streets of Bangkok for over a month. The protests initially started over an amnesty bill that would have seen Yingluck’s brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra return from exile and absolved of graft charges.
Nevertheless, an estimated 150,000-strong crowd in yellow shirts marched in a festive atmosphere to Government House and stormed the gates. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said they would remain until they have reached their goal. In a televised speech from inside the gates of the complex that houses the prime minister’s offices, he called for a “people’s revolution” in Thailand, and suggested that neighborhood watch systems replace police, who are seen as sympathetic to Ms. Yingluck and her brother, himself a former policeman.
Suthep has proposed to install a council of appointed leaders rather than the dissolution of parliament and snap elections. Yingluck says the proposal is unprecedented, undemocratic, and of questionable legality.
One protester’s sign at today’s rally read, “Democracy is there to fool the honest.” The People’s Democratic Reform Committee, led by Suthep, take issue with democracy itself, but have failed to suggest a viable alternative.
An election official told Reuters the elections were likely to be held before Feb. 2, 2014, or within 60 days. However, street protesters aren’t satisfied with elections, which the Yingluck government is likely to win. Many accuse the Yingluck government of buying votes through populist policies.
A 45 year-old protestor who traveled from Phuket to attend demonstrations today said, “I don’t know about elections and dissolving parliament, all I know is that I love the king, and he is very sad now because he is like our father, and his two children are fighting. I don’t care about elections. I just want the Shinawatra family to get out.”
Over the weekend, members of parliament belonging to the main opposition party Democrat party resigned en masse claiming the Yingluck government is illegitimate, and no longer accepted by the people. Polls suggest otherwise: Yingluck’s Pheua Thai Party has only seen marginal drops in its popularity since the protests began, while the protesters are mostly middle-class royalists who do not represent the majority of the population.
“Suthep has a complex of forces behind him with complex demands,” says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “If negotiations fail, Suthep could set up his own structure, which would amount to a people’s coup, and we don’t know what results that would have. Yingluck has some very complicated negotiating to do now, where Suthep, the Democrats, and Yingluck must manage to meet halfway. There’s a chance (the) Democrats may boycott elections, which could prolong the conflict.”
In 2006, then premier Thaksin took a similar step, dissolving parliament in the face of mass protests. The Democrats and other opposition parties boycotted the subsequent election, which Thaksin easily won. Amid a power vacuum, the military later seized control in a bloodless coup.
Thailand’s capital is no stranger to large-scale protests. Two years ago, protracted deadly street protests erupted against then prime minister and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. The worst case scenario, in which armed troops are used to disperse protesters as they did in 2010, would prolong the conflict, according to Wattanayagorn, who says that Thai politicians have long used protest politics to get what they want.
“Everybody, seemingly from all parts of the spectrum, want a better system for the next election, and don’t want a corrupt police system,” says Mr. Panitan, a former spokesman for Mr. Abhisit’s government. “Because there is no formal structure to represent new or alternative forces in Thai politics, people feel they must take to the streets to get what they want.”
Thailand is Southeast Asia‘s second largest economy, once regarded as the region’s most functional democracy, and a close security ally of the United States. Political crisis in Thailand could have a destabilizing effect on the entire region.