BANGKOK (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters converged in Bangkok on Sunday and gave Thailand's military-backed government an ultimatum: call elections within 24 hours or face crippling mass demonstrations across the capital.
About 80,000 red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra flooded the historic heart of Bangkok, singing pro-democracy songs, dancing, waving placards and illustrating Thaksin's enduring influence on Thai politics even after his ouster in a 2006 coup, graft conviction and exile abroad.
Police expect up to 150,000 protesters by evening and are bracing for a rowdy demonstration that could go on for days.
Foreign investors worry any violence could derail a nascent recovery in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy but they have expressed confidence in Thailand's financial markets by snapping up local stocks in recent days.
That optimism is based on three factors: Thai assets are already trading at a substantial risk discount, the economy has rebounded well from the ravages of the global downturn despite bouts of unrest, and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is widely expected to survive the showdown. Take a Look on the political crisis in Thailand. Protest leaders insist the rally will be peaceful even if it lasts a week. They plan to maintain pressure on Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call an election Thaksin's allies would be well-placed to win. Abhisit is unlikely to give in.
"We're asking the government to relinquish power and return it to the people," said Veera Musikapong, chairman of the protest group, United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, setting a deadline of noon Monday for parliament to be dissolved.
If that is not met, they will march throughout Bangkok, said protest leader Nattawut Saikua, raising the prospect of paralyzing many of the capital's already-congested streets.
Abhisit must go to the polls by the end of next year. In his weekly radio address on Sunday, he indicated immediate elections were unlikely, citing the tense political climate and his coalition government's parliamentary majority.
The "red shirts" recent emphasis on non-violent tactics suggests they may have trouble forcing elections, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a political historian at Thammasart University.
"It's hard to pressure the government if the crowd is under control. They will have to try to step it up in the next few days to make more noise and make themselves heard. The danger for the reds is that the government could just wait it out," he said.
TARGETING BANGKOK'S "ELITE"
Several main roads near government offices were blocked off either by protesters' pick-up trucks and motorcycles or cordoned off by police and soldiers. Authorities deployed 50,000 police, soldiers and other security forces across the city.
"It may get more volatile after a few days as the protest leaders step up their measures and people are tired and frustrated," National Security Council Secretary General Thawil Pliensri told Reuters. "We have to make sure there is no damage."
Protesters accuse the government of scaremongering.
The turbulence adds to a seemingly intractable political crisis that pits the military, urban elite and royalists, who wear the revered king's traditional color of yellow at protests and back Abhisit, against the mainly rural Thaksin supporters.
The protesters say the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous coalition government.
Crowds gathered under tents and umbrellas, listening to fiery speeches and folk songs, rattling plastic foot-clappers, hooting horns and waving placards. Intense heat drove many indoors but large numbers were expected to return by evening.
"This government angers me. I never cared much about politics until a few years ago when it became so clear they are trying to hold onto power at the expense of people like us," said Teerachai Sukpitak, a farmer from northeast Leoi province.
The protesters chafe at what they say is an unelected elite preventing allies of twice-elected Thaksin from returning to power through a vote. Adding to their anger, Thailand's top court seized $1.4 billion of Thaksin's assets last month, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
"We are here to ask for justice and for rule of law to be applied to all," one protest leader, Weng Torirajkan, told cheering supporters. "The government cannot do it because it's too busy serving the elite."
Thailand was plagued by political upheaval in 2008 when yellow-shirted protesters who opposed Thaksin's allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister's office for three months and then blockaded Bangkok's international airport until a court ousted the government.
Thaksin, a 60-year-old former telecommunications tycoon, has lived in self-exile mostly in Dubai since he was sentenced to two years in prison in 2008 on graft charges.
He is beloved in the vote-rich north and northeast after becoming the first Thai leader to win landslide elections twice, largely by reaching out to the poor through populist policies such as universal healthcare and cheap loans.
His critics accuse him of authoritarianism, corruption and undermining the monarchy.
(Additional reporting by Chalathip Thirasoontrakul; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Paul Tait)
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