BANGKOK Alarmed by the prospect of bloodshed in Thailand as a six-month political crisis nears a critical juncture, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for talks between the government and its foes, urging compromise to restore stability.
The 49-year-old leader of Thailand's main opposition Democrat Party has joined street demonstrations in Bangkok aiming to force out Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and his party boycotted a February 2 election, which was nullified by a court in March after widespread disruption.
But now Abhisit appears to be putting some distance between himself and the protesters.
Violence is threatening to increase, he told foreign media in an interview late on Wednesday. "Given the accumulated frustration and loss of opportunity for the country, it's really time that people begin to speak up for the middle ground."
"I think there are many people who want to see common ground emerging. My intention, this week, is to say that: isn't it time we all accept the reality that neither side can get its way, and even if it did, it couldn't bring long-lasting stability."
The protests, which attracted more than 200,000 people at their height, have dwindled but hard-core demonstrators say they will continue to harass the government and disrupt any new election until Yingluck's government is toppled.
Abhisit's comments were met with skepticism by the government.
"What the Democrat Party says it will do and what it does are not the same thing," said Sunisa Lertpakawat, a deputy government spokeswoman.
"If he's sincere, why didn't he join Tuesday's talks aimed at discussing a date for the next election?" she added, referring to a meeting arranged by the Election Commission that was attended by nearly 60 parties. Abhisit stayed away, citing security concerns.
Yingluck's opponents have taken to the courts to remove her, alleging abuse of power and other infractions, and in response her "red shirt" supporters say they, too, will take to the streets if she is removed by what they say are politicized judges. Verdicts in some of these cases could come in May.
"WE NEED TO MOVE ON"
Thailand has been in crisis since Yingluck's brother, then premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
On the one side are Bangkok's middle class, the royalist establishment and many people in the south, a Democrat stronghold, who say the Shinawatra family is corrupt and authoritarian.
On the other side are supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, strong in the north and northeast, who idolize Thaksin as the first leader to pay attention to the millions living outside Bangkok.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister under Abhisit until 2011, has said it could be two years or more before the country can go to the polls again.
That is a daunting prospect for a country that has spent months under a caretaker government with diminished spending and policymaking powers.
"I've been urging a dialogue between the prime minister and Suthep for months and clearly it's not happening ... It doesn't mean that I should sit idly and look at what's going to happen or wait for something to happen," said Abhisit.
"I will do what I can to see if we can break the stalemate."
Critics have accused the Democrat Party, which last won a general election in 1992, of refusing to run in February because it knew it would lose, something Abhisit denies.
In 2010, Abhisit was prime minister and Suthep his deputy when the military cracked down on pro-Thaksin protesters demanding an early election and they both face murder charges for their role. More than 90 people died during weeks of protests.
The current protests are a reminder of that turbulence and observers fear Thailand could be heading towards an all-out confrontation between pro- and anti-government groups.
"A lot of it could be rhetoric but the risks are clearly there," said Abhisit.
Since the protests began in November, 25 people have been killed in politically related violence.
"No one is blameless and we are all part of the problem," said Abhisit. "Now I'm saying that we need to move on."
In the latest violence, Kamol Duangphasuk, a poet and pro-government red shirt activist, was shot dead in a restaurant parking lot by unidentified gunmen on Wednesday.
Last week an ultra-royalist vigilante group, the Rubbish Collection Organisation, said it would seek out individuals thought to be disrespecting Thailand's monarchy.
Designed to protect the monarchy, Thailand's lese-majeste law is the world's harshest. Thais are increasingly polarized between those who want it reformed and those who believe the law remains necessary. Kamol opposed the law.
(Editing by Alan Raybould, Robert Birsel and Michael Perry)