BANGKOK - Tens of thousands of opposition activists paraded through Thailand's sprawling capital on Saturday to try to win over Bangkok's middle classes to their anti-government campaign.
The red-shirted supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra moved around the city of 15 million people in a 13-km (8-mile) convoy, handing out leaflets saying We love Bangkokians and calling on urban sympathisers to join their push for new elections.
Smiling, waving flags and shaking their trademark clappers, they cruised along the 46-km route in a deafening procession of motorcycles and overloaded pickup trucks, cheering, honking horns and shaking hands with crowds that lined the streets.
Police estimated 65,000 protesters took part, although some media and witnesses said as many as 90,000 were in the convoy.
We want to invite Bangkok residents to oust aristocrats and the government, one of the red-shirted leaders said.
The week-long rally, which drew up to 150,000 people last Sunday, has so far been peaceful, boosting investor sentiment and helping to lift Thai stocks to a 20-month high.
Foreign investors have in the last month pumped 35.5 billion baht (732 million pounds) into the bourse, one of Asia's cheapest, much of that based on confidence that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government will ride out the storm.
Abhist has avoided his office, parliament and his home for security reasons and spent another day at a fortified military compound. He has refused to bow to demands for a new election, insisting the country is too divided to go to the polls.
DEMOCRACY, OR THAKSIN?
Abhisit said he was willing to hold talks with the protesters to end the deadlock, but only if Thaksin was off the agenda.
My question is: What is the standpoint of the 'red shirts'? -- Democracy or Thaksin? If answer is democracy, we can talk, Abhisit told Channel 3 television.
Protest leaders agreed to hold preliminary talks either on Sunday or Monday, but had conditions of their own.
We will only talk with Abhisit, no one else, one of the leaders, Nattawut Saikua, told reporters, rejecting the government's plan to send other cabinet ministers.
The self-exiled Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup and convicted of graft, is the assumed leader and financier of the movement and has called the campaign a class war.
Although fatigue and the sizzling sun had forced many protesters to return to their provinces, streams of Bangkok people, mostly economic migrants from Thaksin's northeast stronghold, turned out in force to join the convoy or cheer them from the streets.
Abhisit -- get out, some motorcyclists bellowed. Others held aloft pictures of Thaksin and shouted: fight, fight.
The vast number that took part underlined the deep social divisions in Thailand and showed the rally still had momentum, despite earlier showing signs of fizzling out. Protest leaders said they would stay for at least two more weeks.
Analysts said the red shirts had earned many sympathisers in their seven days of rallies but face an uphill struggle to bring the politically powerful middle classes fully on board.
Many in the capital remain staunchly opposed to Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon derided by opponents as a corrupt autocrat who abused power to enrich his family business.
Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said many residents sympathised with the movement, but chafed at the prospect of being labelled a Thaksin supporter.
These people are ambivalent because of the stigma of Thaksin, he said. The Thai media is their obstacle, it portrays the 'red shirts' as blind followers of Thaksin, which means if you join them, you approve of Thaksin.
Thaksin lives mostly in Dubai and has delivered rousing video-link addresses to the red shirts, who are among the millions of Thais who brought him two landslide election wins and remain loyal because of his populist policies while in office.
The red shirts say big businessmen, aristocrats, army generals and judges have colluded to undermine elected governments -- which were led or backed by Thaksin -- and want Bangkok residents to help return power to the people.
Protesters say Oxford-educated Abhisit, who is backed by an influential establishment elite and a politically potent military, is a puppet who should step down.
(Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Myra MacDonald)