BANGKOK — Facing volatile street protests and the mass resignation from Parliament of the main opposition party, Thailand’s prime minister on Monday called for fresh elections, the latest in a series of attempts to defuse anger against her political party and her powerful family. “Let the people decide the direction of the country and who the governing majority will be,” the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, said in a televised statement Monday morning.
The news came as thousands of protesters, who have vowed to overthrow the government and rid the country of the influence of Yingluck’s family, marched toward the prime minister’s office.
The call for elections, which were not due until 2015, did not satisfy many of the protest leaders, who reacted with scorn minutes after the announcement. “This is not our objective,” Anchalee Paireerak, a protest leader, said of the elections. “We will continue marching.”
Protests in Bangkok have left five people dead and hundreds injured over the past two weeks. Anchalee and other protest leaders have called for a system that would replace the country’s electoral democracy with a vaguely defined “people’s council,” a plan that civic leaders and scholars have widely derided as idealistic, unworkable and retrograde.
The opposition in Thailand has been deeply frustrated by its inability to win elections against the powerful political machine backed by the billionaire tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who now lives in exile. Yingluck is Thaksin’s sister.
On Sunday, the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest and the main force behind the country’s political opposition, announced that its members would resign from Parliament and join anti-government street demonstrations. “We cannot beat them,” said Theptai Seanapong, one of the members of Parliament who resigned on Sunday. “It doesn’t matter if we raise our hands and feet in parliamentary votes, we will never win.”
Sathit Wongnongtoey, one of the protest leaders and a former member of Parliament for the Democrat Party, said Monday that he feared there would be “cheating” in the election if the government carried on as caretakers, as the constitution stipulates.
“And they will return to power,” Sathit said. “We cannot allow that to happen.”
The mistrust of electoral politics has echoes across the region — in Malaysia, where the governing party has heavily gerrymandered the electoral map, and in Cambodia, where the authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, has used the machinery of the state and military to bolster his power. The Cambodian opposition continues to boycott Parliament over allegations of widespread electoral fraud in July elections.
One major difference in Thailand, however, is that there is little dispute that Thaksin’s party has won the hearts of the majority of voters. By tailoring its policies to voters in the provinces, especially in northern Thailand, scholars say, the governing Pheu Thai Party has convincingly won every election since 2001.