BANGKOK (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters converged on Bangkok's main shopping area on Saturday and threatened to stay until Thailand's premier calls elections, forcing big retailers to close and paralysing traffic.
The red-shirted protesters swarmed an intersection whose upmarket stores make it a symbol of wealth in the Thai capital, accusing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government of neglecting the poor on the 21st day of their mass street rally.
Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia, and other big shopping malls shut their doors in response to the protests and threats by the "red shirts" to stay in the area popular with tourists and studded with hotels.
"We cannot let Mr. Abhisit rule the country any longer," Jatuporn Prompan, a "red shirt" leader, said from the roof a truck. "It is time for the under-privileged to liberate themselves from oppression made by the elite-backed government."
While the rally was mostly peaceful, tensions flared when protesters smashed the windscreen of a Porsche sports car that had driven onto a sidewalk and hit a demonstrator. Police rescued the 18-year-old driver, the son of a prominent businessman.
Thousands also rallied outside state-controlled broadcasters Radio Thailand and Channel 11, accusing them of bias.
Backed by Thailand's powerful military and royalist establishment, Abhisit has said a peaceful poll now would be difficult given the tensions and has offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early.
The mostly rural and urban poor protesters are threatening more protests in coming days, extending a mass rally that began on March 14 when up to 150,000 people converged on Bangkok's old quarter.
Analysts say Abhisit would likely lose an election if it were held now, raising investment risks in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy following a $1.6 billion surge of foreign investment in Thai stocks over the past five weeks on expectations Abhisit will survive the showdown.
'SEA CHANGE IN THAI POLITICS'
The "red shirts," supporters of twice-elected and now fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, say Abhisit has no popular mandate and came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.
Abhisit counters that he was voted into office by the same parliament that picked his two Thaksin-allied predecessors.
Thaksin was widely seen as authoritarian and corrupt before his ouster in a 2006 coup, but remains a powerful symbol as the first Thai civilian leader to reach out to the poor in his 2001 election campaign with populist policies such as cheap loans.
The 60-year-old former telecommunications tycoon is believed to be a big source of funds for the protests and has harnessed new technology -- from social networking site Twitter to web-cams -- to rally supporters from self-imposed exile, mostly in Dubai.
Analysts say regardless of the outcome, the mass rallies mark a turning point in a country where the richest 20 percent of the population earn about 55 percent of the income while the poorest fifth get 4 percent, according to November World Bank study.
That income disparity is among Asia's widest, it showed.
"The fact that this many people were mobilised for so long shows the sea change in Thai politics," said Chris Baker, a political analyst who has written several books on Thai politics.
The "red shirts" have tapped an under-current of frustration, added prominent Thai political historian Charnvit Kasertsiri.
"What the leaders say strikes a chord, whether it be double-standard of treatment, problems with the justice system, or lack of access and opportunities for a better life," he said.
Analysts say both sides want to be in power in October for an annual military reshuffle and the passing of the national budget.
The budget gives the government room to roll out welfare policies to court rural voters whose discontent is at the heart of the protests and who now back the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai Party. It also gives whoever is in power a chance to allocate money to the powerful military and ministries.
The military reshuffle allows the government to promote allies in an institution that yields tremendous influence in a country that has seen 24 coups and attempted coups since 1932.
(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)