BANGKOK — Supporters of Thailand's caretaker prime minister have begun a three-day rally on the outskirts of the capital. The turnout will be a key indicator of the level of popular support for the beleaguered government, which has been the target of demonstrations for months.
For months, opponents of Thailand's government, who also are fighting against holding new nationwide elections, have held the spotlight and, for extended periods of time, even controlled key intersections in the capital.
Until now, government supporters, led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, known as the "red shirts," mainly clustered in the rural north, have not staged large rallies in or around Bangkok. That has been seen partly as a prudent move to avoid violent clashes like those in previous years.
On Saturday, while the anti-government movement spearheaded by the People's Democratic Reform Committee, continued to rally in a central Bangkok park, supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began gathering 30 kilometers to the west.
Security officials are confident the distance between the two camps will prevent significant bloodshed.
The red shirts have attracted to their demonstration site, so far, significantly less than the half-million supporters initially predicted by organizers.
Red shirt leader Jatuporn Phromphan vows that the group will protect the government it voted for.
Jatuporn, a former member of parliament, says "the prime minister has to come from the vote of the people. If anyone tries to change the administration, either by a military coup or other means, we will fight it."
Despite the support of the rural masses, Yingluck is in a precarious position. Judges and government agencies have handed down a series of decisions favoring the anti-government protesters. This has led to speculation that such actions will lead to the prime minister's removal and possibly the ouster of her entire caretaker government.
The Constitutional Court recently nullified the February 2nd polling and it is uncertain when new elections will be held.
There are fears a so-called "judicial coup" will create a power vacuum, imperiling the country's fragile democracy and further damaging its export-dependent economy.
Yingluck has been prime minister since her [PueaThai] party's landslide election victory in 2011. She is the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra who was prime minister until he was ousted by the military in 2006. The billionaire businessman is in self-imposed exile but widely seen here as still exerting significant control over the governing party and the current administration.
Key figures in the military have vowed not to conduct another coup but few of the generals have uttered support for the current government.
There are no indications the country's highly revered monarch, the ailing 86-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, known as Rama IX, has directly intervened in the political struggle.
In previous decades, behind the scenes maneuvering by the palace or more public royal reprimands have been able to halt such crises.