Thailand facing uncertainty after court ruling

International Herald Tribune

Published: May 31, 2007


Police officers blocked the main gate to the constitutional court in Bangkok during its
 proceedings Wednesday.(Saeed Khan/Agence France-Presse)

BANGKOK: Thailand’s ailing democracy faced more
uncertainty Thursday after a constitutional court shut down the
political party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and barred
him and 110 other party executives from politics for five years.

The ruling late Wednesday abruptly removed country’s dominant party,
Thai Rak Thai, and most of its leading political figures in advance of
an election scheduled for December that will redraw the political
landscape.

Political analysts here said the ruling put an end for now to the
political career of Thaksin, the country’s most popular politician. He
remains abroad after being deposed in a nonviolent coup last Sept. 19
while he was in New York.

The nine-judge constitutional court in effect ratified the coup,
convicting the party and its executives of manipulating an election in
April 2006 in what it called an attempt “to achieve totalitarian power.”

Echoing the harsh criticism of his critics, it said Thaksin’s party
“shows no respect for the rule of law, which is the key to the
democratic system.”

During his six years in power, critics say, Thaksin had
systematically taken control of the country’s political and judicial
institutions, weakening its democratic structure.

In a statement from London on Thursday, Thaksin said, “I humbly
accept the ruling” and urged the military-backed government to hold
democratic elections as soon as possible.

But analysts who have watched him for the past six years said
Thaksin might continue to use his wealth to try to influence events
from a distance.

Thaksin’s supporters here were stunned and angry Thursday, and
political analysts said Thailand could be headed into a period of
greater turmoil. In a companion ruling, the court acquitted the
country’s other major party, the Democrat Party, of electoral fraud.

“The verdict increases the likelihood of violence and deeper
confrontation in the months to come,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak,
director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at
Chulalongkorn University.

“I think the polarization we have seen is going to deepen,” he said.
“Now we have not just the disenfranchisement of Thai Rak Thai
executives but also the vast majority of the electorate. Their party
has been taken away. There is a gaping hole now.”

Even after the coup, analysts said Thaksin remained by far the most
popular politician in the country; in 2005 he was reelected by more
than 14 million voters.

His constituency was the rural poor and he played up the divisions
between rich and poor, urban and rural, as part of his political text.

“This ruling will deepen the divisions in the country,” said Chris
Baker, a British historian and expert on Thailand. “This business of
martyring him and martyring the party – this makes the divisions more
rigid and the emotions stronger.”

Several hundred supporters, some wearing headbands that read, “Coup
leaders get out,” gathered Thursday evening in central Bangkok to
protest the ruling. But analysts said Thai Rak Thai now had few avenues
to reassert its influence.

“I think it’s sort of, just wait a bit, wait till things change with the election, and then see what’s possible,” said Baker.

The party’s acting leader, Chaturon Chaisaeng, angrily criticized
the ruling late Wednesday night, saying, “The whole country is unlikely
to accept this.”

“We weren’t treated fairly,” he said. “The ruling was made on the
basis that those who seize power can decide what’s right and wrong even
if that power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

On Thursday, Chaturon said he would appeal to the government to
overturn the political bans, although there is no judicial appeal of
the rulings.

Analysts now foresee a scramble to form new parties, some of them
headed by old-line political leaders who have battled over and shared
power in the past.

Future governments were likely to become once again fractious and
inefficient coalitions rather than the top-down “CEO government”
Thaksin introduced, Baker said.

A new constitution that is soon to be put to a referendum contains
provisions aimed at preventing another strong executive from
accumulating power as Thaksin did.

There is debate here over whether the court was acting entirely
independently in producing a ruling that favored the government, which
has been preoccupied by perceived threats from Thaksin and his
supporters.

Independent or not, Baker said, the court’s decision was explicitly
political. It presented a strong case against Thai Rak Thai, but its
remedy was severe.

“What other country of the world has electoral misdmeanors of this
scale lead to the dissolution of the country’s largest party?” Baker
said.

With the removal of Thaksin’s party, Thailand is now shorn of the
political structure of the past six years and the future is
unpredictable, several commentators said.

“This was a power play and we are likely to see a growing alliance
of the ruling generals and the surviving politicians,” Thitinan said.
“The generals know they have to maintain some influence after the
election – that the politicians have to protect the generals –
otherwise the generals will not transfer power.”

A worst-case scenario, Thitinan said, would be a move by the military to strengthen rather than relinquish its power.

“What we could be seeing very soon, I fear, is an emerging military
dictatorship,” he said. “Look at the way they have been flexing their
muscles, issuing threats and intimidation, basically telling people to
shut up. If you protest, there will be tanks.

“When you have tanks and guns and tough words from men in uniform,
it’s not a good sign,” he said. “That’s the sign of an emerging
military dictatorship.”

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