Protesters rally in Bangkok for fresh elections

More than 100,000 protesters converged in Bangkok yesterday and gave Thailand's military-backed government an ultimatum to call elections within 24 hours or face crippling demonstrations across the capital.

Singing pro-democracy songs, dancing, hooting horns and waving placards, red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra flooded streets in Bangkok's historic heart and threatened to stay for a week.

Most travelled from Thailand's poor, rural provinces, piling into pick-up trucks, cars and even river boats, and illustrating Thaksin's enduring influence on Thai politics even after his ouster in a 2006 coup, graft conviction and self-exile.

Protest leaders hope a powerful display of popular support will force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and call an election that Thaksin's allies would be well-placed to win. They also want to convince wavering partners in the governing coalition to break away.

"Brothers and sisters, don't give up. Don't fight for me. Fight for the country," Thaksin told supporters via video link from an undisclosed location in Europe.

"I am a symbol of those bullied by the elite who do not care about democray and justice."

The turbulence adds to a seemingly intractable political crisis that pits the military, urban elite and royalists who wear yellow at protests and strongly back Abhisit against mainly rural Thaksin supporters who wear red and say they are disinfranchised.

The "red shirts" plan to gather on Monday morning at a military base where Abhisit has taken refuge and is coordinating security. If their demands are not met, they have threatened to march through Bangkok, raising the prospect of paralysing many of the capital's already-congested streets.

Abhisit is widely expected to survive the showdown.

He must go to the polls by the end of next year. In his weekly television address yesterday, Abhisit indicated immediate elections were unlikely, citing the tense political climate and his coalition government's parliamentary majority.