News / Asia

Thai Government Under Pressure to Dissolve

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is under increasing pressure to step down and call new elections after deadly clashes between soldiers and anti-government protesters.

Anti-government protesters continue to occupy key landmarks in Bangkok, despite clashes with security forces Saturday that killed 21 people, 16 of them protesters.

As both sides mourn their dead, and plan their next steps, political analysts here say the next casualty looks increasingly likely to be the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The protesters, known for the red shirts they wear, want Mr. Abhisit to call new elections immediately, and reject his offer for elections in six months. They have protested in Bangkok for more than a month.

"Well, you know, he's tried the hard approach, he's tried the soft approach," said William Case, director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at Hong Kong's City University.   "Nothing seems to have worked. He has just alienated and emboldened the red shirt forces. And, in consequence, he at the moment has lost a lot of standing and a lot of prestige, and it doesn't look like he's got a lot of options left."

The government called off security forces and expressed sorrow for the deaths. But officials say soldiers are preparing for the possibility of further action against protesters.

However, in a sign of a possible split between the government and the military, the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, says he is against using force. Instead, he says, government should focus on negotiating when to hold new elections.

Case says Mr. Abhisit's decision to use force against the protesters may have cost him support.

"There's a lot of discussion about his being forced out. He's just not useful to the traditional elites any longer," he said.  "So, they're going to have to find another approach and that means, possibly, dispensing with him."

Adding to the pressure, the Election Commission says Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party is guilty of accepting an illegal campaign donation and should be dissolved.

The final decision will be made by a constitutional court, which is expected to take some days, if not weeks.

Somchai Phatharathananunth, a lecturer on Thai politics at central Thailand's Mahasarakham University, says neither the election commission nor the constitutional court are free of political interference.

"The real decision making will be behind the scenes. I think if they bargain behind the scene[s] and reach the solution … and then they will announce it," said Somchai.

Regardless of political wrangling, the Election Commission ruling adds weight to calls for early elections.

But analysts say new elections, which red shirt-backed candidates are likely to win, would do little to ease tensions in the country.

"If there will be the new government then you know some other groups of people will say that I'm not happy with this government," said Surat Horachaikul, a professor of politics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.  "I want this color, you know, the government to be of this blue color, yellow color, red color, whatsoever. But, this is not about democracy because democracy is about living with something you don't like as well."

Many of the demonstrators support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.

Surat says they want to whitewash charges against Mr. Thaksin and bring him back into power, which would bring yellow-dressed protesters back onto the streets.

The yellow shirts in 2008 surrounded government house and for a week seized Bangkok's airports in a bid to end governments friendly to Mr. Thaksin. Eventually court rulings about campaign practices forced out two governments that favored him.

Thailand's urban elite and middle class consider Mr. Thaksin to be corrupt and authoritarian. The red shirt demonstrators, on the other hand, are mainly from the countryside. They say the current government is run by Bangkok elites backed by the military who care little about their plight.

Prime Minister Abhisit says he is still willing to negotiate with protest leaders but they have rejected further talks.

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