BANGKOK – The huge show of strength on Bangkok’s streets Monday by anti-government demonstrators determined to eradicate the hated “Thaksin regime” is a stark sign that elections may not end Thailand’s bitter political conflict, experts say.
After weeks of protests, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced on Monday that she would dissolve the lower house and hold a general election.
But for many of her 150,000 opponents who thronged the streets of the capital, ridding Thailand of the influence of Yingluck and her older brother, Thaksin — a divisive former premier ousted in a coup seven years ago — is a bigger priority than upholding democracy.
“We don’t want elections,” said Kamlai Supradith, 70, who has been protesting for more than a month.
“We want to chase the whole family out. They are bad. They ruin this country and they don’t even respect the king. . . . We have to dig out the root,” Kamlai added.
Yingluck said Tuesday she would not resign ahead of national elections set for Feb. 2, despite opposition demands she step down as the caretaker head of government.
Yingluck told reporters that she must fulfill her “duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution.”
She became choked up when asked about her family’s role in Thai politics.
“I’m not without emotion,” she said, her voice quavering. “I’m also Thai. Do you want me not to step foot on Thai soil anymore?
“I have retreated as far as I can. So I ask to be treated fairly,” she said, turning and walking quickly away from the podium.
In recent years, Thai society’s deep class and geographic-based divisions have crystallized into visceral hatred between the mostly rural, working class supporters of Thaksin and the royalist urban middle class and elite who loathe him and his sister.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, most recently with a landslide victory under Yingluck in 2011 with her brother in self-imposed exile.
Stung by repeated defeats at the ballot box, it seems “the anti-government protesters are after a more absolute and perfect democracy which would not involve what we normally associate with democracy, like elections,” said Thai-based academic and author David Streckfuss.
A national unity government after the polls could be a possibility — but so too is a military coup, although the latter option is less likely, he added.
“The military remembers the 2006 coup did not achieve its goal of getting rid of Thaksin. In fact, the coup played a role in politically awakening Thaksin supporters. A new coup would likely be met with resistance and lead to further polarization,” he said.
Many protesters have called for an unelected “government of the people” whose members would be selected by the protesters and then approved by the king — a demand that has been rejected by Yingluck as unconstitutional.
“Democracy, in its own sense, doesn’t work right now in Thailand. Thaksin subverted our democracy,” said Eddy, a protester who declined to give his last name.
He repeated the opposition’s usual allegation — disputed by many independent experts — that Thaksin’s victories at the ballot box are only thanks to rampant vote buying.
“It is only the middle class who know what politics is about. They must decide. We are a force who can put Thailand back together,” Eddy added.
A deep, personal hatred of the Thaksin family is clearly evident at the protests. Some demonstrators call for the exile or even execution of the whole family, while others compare them to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Thaksin is adored by many outside Bangkok, particularly in his stronghold in the nation’s north and northeast, for his populist policies targeting the rural poor.
But the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician is reviled by the elite, Bangkok’s middle class and southerners, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
Where this loathing will lead is an open question, with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowing to keep up what he describes as a “people’s revolution” against a government elected by the voters.
“What Suthep wants — of course it is absurd — is to kick the Shinawatras out of Thailand and then to uproot the Thaksin regime,” said former Thai diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
“Things will not be easy from now on,” he said, adding that the opposition Democrat Party doesn’t “even have any further plan apart from making the situation ungovernable.”
The risk for Yingluck now is that the Democrats might boycott elections, prolonging the crisis, said Thailand expert Chris Baker, co-author of a biography of Thaksin.
“What they could try to do, although it’s outrageous, is say we would boycott the election if Yingluck remains the party leader. I think that’s the sort of game they’ll play.”
For many protesters, including Eddy, elections are now irrelevant. “This is not about democracy. This is about good and evil,” he said.