Thai parties await elections ruling

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By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok

Published: May 27 2007 21:25 | Last updated: May 27 2007 21:25

Thailand’s
army chief pledged a swift restoration of democracy when he sent tanks
into Bangkok to drive Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister, from
power last September.

But while the current military-installed
government insists it is on course to transfer power to a freshly
elected government around the New Year, Thais are now anxiously waiting
to see whether any of their top politicians will be allowed to
participate in the new order.

That
could become clearer on Wednesday, when a military-created
Constitutional Tribunal delivers its verdict on whether the two largest
political parties – Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party
and the 61-year-old Democrat party – committed fraud during bizarre
elections last year.

If found guilty, the two parties – which
accounted for 90 per cent of the members of the last parliament – stand
to be dissolved. More drastically, their combined 160 party executives
could be banned from elections for five years, clearing the way for
figures amenable to the military to claim power.

While such
sweeping action would be unprecedented in Thailand’s coup-plagued
history, military leaders are thought to see such a ban as the best
insurance against a newly elected government seeking retribution for
the ousting of Mr Thaksin, now living in exile.

“The generals
clearly want a political class that they feel they can dominate,” said
Korn Chatikavanij, deputy leader of the Democrat party. “They have made
it clear they would like to weaken both, if not make them disappear
altogether.”

A Bangkok-based business analyst said the
elimination of so many veteran politicians would leave “an open field
for [the coup-makers] and that is precisely what they want . . . You go
easy on these guys, and you could end up with elections that put
ex-Thai Rak Thai into power.”

Yet dissolving the party founded by
Mr Thaksin, who is still popular among the rural poor, and barring its
leaders from politics also poses unpredictable risks.

While the
military is preparing to control any post-verdict protests, analysts
warn that Thaksin supporters, egged on by disgruntled politicians,
could also vent their anger by rejecting the new military-sponsored
constitution in a planned national referendum. Analysts say the ban
would also hit some high-profile former Thai Rak Thai leaders, who are
otherwise willing to co-operate with military figures in a future
administration.

“It’s a dead-end road,” Suchit Boonbongkarn, a
Chulalongkorn University political scientist, said. “It would have very
serious negative consequences.”

Reflecting the gravity of the
case, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered monarch, made a rare public
comment, urging the judges to make a clear legal decision, and warning:
“Either way the verdict goes, it will be bad for the country.”

The
Thai Rak Thai and Democrat parties stand accused of misconduct in the
April 2006 elections, held after Mr Thaksin dissolved parliament amid
mass protests against his family’s $1.9bn tax-free sale of their 49 per
cent stake in Thailand’s largest telecommunications company.

The
charges were already pending in the Constitutional Court when the army
seized power and abolished the constitution. Three days later, the
coup-makers reinstated the relevant political party laws and created a
new Constitutional Tribunal to hear the case.

The military also
stiffened the potential punishment. The original law said leaders of a
party dissolved for electoral fraud would be barred from executive
positions in any other party for five years.

But a post-coup
military edict said such politicians would also be barred from
contesting elections for five years. If the tribunal finds the parties
guilty, it must also decide on the punishment.

But Chaturon
Chaisang, the acting Thai Rak Thai leader, argues the tribunal has “no
legitimacy” to abolish parties for violations of a constitution already
abolished by the military.

“It will be difficult for those in
power to explain this to people,” he said. “What we did is like
breaking a window of a house, but it is being prosecuted by people who
burned down the whole house.”

He also said Thai Rak Thai would not simply fade away, irrespective of the tribunal’s decision.

“We will continue our struggle, via the parliamentary system, by peaceful means,” he said.

“We will demand the right of people to register a new party.

“The popularity of this party is even higher than before the coup. People want this party to survive and win the next election.”

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