At talks broadcast live on television, the prime minister refused to bow to the red-shirted demonstrators’ demand to dissolve parliament and hold snap elections, but both sides agreed to meet again on Monday.
“House dissolution can only happen if we see it is not only the way out for the Reds but for the whole country also,” Abhisit told three Red Shirt leaders.
The Reds’ Jatuporn Prompan, one of the leaders of the movement that backs deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said they would return on Monday, but pressed Abhisit to meet their demand within a fortnight.
“We ask you to dissolve the house within two weeks. Whatever your decision should be, if we talk tomorrow, I want you to consider this condition,” he said.
The Reds have staged a series of dramatic stunts in their bid to force Abhisit to call snap elections, picketing the army barracks where he is holed up and throwing their own blood at his office gates.
Plea for fresh elections
Abhisit had ruled out talks earlier Sunday, but made an about-face and looked visibly uneasy for much of the three-hour meeting, held at a Bangkok educational institute.
The Red Shirts accuse his government of being undemocratic as it came to power on the back of a parliamentary vote that followed a controversial court ruling ousting Thaksin’s allies from power.
They seek the return of the twice-elected Thaksin, a populist former telecoms tycoon, saying the 2006 coup that ousted him was illegal.
“If you are confident of winning an election, you should return power to the people,” Jatuporn said. Polls are due to be held by December 2011.
Tens of thousands of protesters sat at their rally ground in Bangkok’s government quarter to watch the talks on a giant screen.
Thaksin later addressed them by video link, urging them to unite behind the Red leaders.
Lengthy stand-off expected
“Some say it was negative for the Reds because Abhisit is a good speaker but he lacks all sincerity,” said Thaksin, who is staying in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.
The Reds increased pressure on Abhisit over the weekend by threatening to march on the military barracks where he has been holed up.
Their movement is largely drawn from the rural poor, who say the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit is only able to lead his six-party coalition with military backing.
Political analyst and Thaksin biographer Chris Baker predicted a lengthy stand-off and questioned the strength of support for Abhisit among the political elite.
“How do the military and various other people think they can best manage the situation? I think they’re likely to think Abhisit’s quite simply expendable,” he said. “I don’t think these talks will be over so quickly.”
Security tight in Bangkok
The Reds are riding high after a rally Saturday that drew 80,000 people and forced troops to retreat from security posts in the heart of the capital.
The military has mounted a massive security operation for the demonstrations, which began on March 14 after a court ruling seized 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin’s fortune.
While the demonstrations have passed peacefully, the capital was hit late Sunday by the latest in a series of explosions at politically significant sites and army buildings.
A woman was injured by the grenade attack at the home of ex-prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa, police said.
A dozen people were injured over the weekend when grenades were lobbed at the gate of the barracks where Abhisit has been living and working during the protests.