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 protests, 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 its democratic process.
Yingluck said she would continue her duties as caretaker prime minister until the election, which is expected on Feb. 2.
“Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask that you stop protesting and that all sides work toward elections,” she told reporters.
“I have backed down to the point where I don’t know how to back down any further,” Yingluck said, with tears in her eyes. She quickly composed herself.
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 in one of Bangkok’s largest protests in memory.
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.
The protesters 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.
In a late-night speech to supporters massed around Government House on Monday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban gave Yingluck 24 hours to step down.
“Suthep has asked the prime minister and the government to step down from their duties,” said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the protest group.
“We want the government to step aside and create a power vacuum in order to create a people’s council,” he said, adding protesters would camp near the prime minister’s offices for three days.
Lawmakers from the main opposition Democrat Party resigned from parliament en masse on Sunday, saying they could not work with Yingluck. Its leaders have refused to be drawn on whether they would participate in the election.
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.
Aware that the allies of Yingluck and Thaksin would almost certainly win any election, Suthep has called for a “people’s council” of appointed “good people” to replace the government.
In another speech on Monday, he called Yingluck’s government incompetent and corrupt for policies such as a costly rice intervention scheme and said the people would select a new prime minister. He did not say how that would be done or how he planned to take over the levers of power.
Suthep was dismissive of the early election. “The dissolving of parliament is not our aim,” he told Reuters.
His 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.
Thaksin is widely seen as the power behind his sister’s government. The protests were sparked last month by a government bid to introduce an amnesty that would have expunged his conviction and allowed him to return home a free man.
Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party won the last election in 2011 by a landslide, enjoying widespread support in the north and northeast, Thailand’s poorest regions. She will be its candidate for prime minister if the party wins in February.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak.