BANGKOK (AP) — Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Tuesday she would not resign ahead of national elections set for Feb. 2, while her opponents scorned her declaration and claimed they would appoint their own government in her place.
Yingluck spoke one day after she announced elections — and one day after the leader of a protest group seeking her ouster told his followers to stay in the streets and insisted his movement had a more legitimate right to power than the elected government.
The brazen claim — unbacked by law or control of any state institutions — has nonetheless been taken seriously by protesters and some Thai media.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields immense influence in the country.
On Monday, the protest movement, whose goals and methods one critic described as "fascist," issued what it titled an order for Yingluck and her Cabinet to step down from their caretaker posts by late Tuesday night.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said Tuesday evening that his "People's Democratic Reform Committee" considered the government already null and void, and that it would appoint a prime minister who is "acceptable to the people."
Sidestepping questions raised about the constitutionality of the proposal, the group said it would "nominate" the best person to be prime minister.
The streets of Bangkok were quiet Tuesday, a national holiday, after weeks of sometimes violent political turmoil.
Yingluck insisted Tuesday that she would remain the interim head of government until the Feb. 2 elections. "I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution," she said.
"I have retreated as far as I can. So I ask to be treated fairly," she said.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, was toppled by a 2006 military coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between Thailand's elite and largely urban middle class on one side, and Thaksin's power base in the countryside on the other. That base benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
Ever since, the two sides have been dueling for power, sometimes violently. Since the latest unrest began last month, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured.
The protesters were not satisfied by Monday's announcement of new elections, saying they cannot win the polls because of corruption. The opposition Democrat Party, allied with the protest movement, has been defeated by Thaksin-allied parties in every election since 2001.
A newly formed group of more than 150 academics and intellectuals calling themselves the Assembly for the Defense of Democracy criticized the protesters' claims of having a legal basis for taking over the government, describing them Tuesday as "neither constitutional nor democratic."
"They destroy the process of building political will through peaceful means in a democracy and they will lead the country to violent crisis," the group's founding statement said.
"What Suthep (and his group) are trying to do is launch a coup, but they have not succeeded," said Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a lecturer in law at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "What is clear is that they want a transition to a fascist system."
Suthep, who faces an arrest warrant on insurrection charges, challenged authorities on Monday to "Come get me."
He said his movement was assuming some functions of government, citing a clause in the constitution stating that "the highest power is the sovereign power of the people."
Suthep called for civil servants to report to the protest group instead of the government, and urged citizens to set up their own neighborhood peacekeeping forces to take over from police. The protesters have castigated the police for being zealous defenders of the government.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Todd Pitman, Sinfah Tunsarawuth and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.