THAILAND: ‘Judicial Revolution’ Changing Political Landscape

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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 10 (IPS) – Several rulings handed down by Thai courts recently suggest that the country’s political landscape is being altered by the judiciary. Some are calling it a ‘’judicial revolution’’.

It comes as Thailand goes through a rocky period, with many asking if the government of Prime Minster Samak Sundaravej, elected late-December, will survive. In parliament, the Samak administration came in for trenchant criticism by the opposition Democrat Party during a parliamentary session in June, while the independent press has given the government little respite from a regular pummelling of critical stories and commentary.

The street has been as hostile, too. Since late May, an anti-government group, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), has held daily protests in a historic part of Bangkok to expose the many flaws of the alliance that Samak heads. These protests, which have attracted thousands, scored a symbolic victory by breaking through police ranks in late June to block Government House, the seat of executive power, for days.
Yet neither the opposition, the press nor the PAD has shaken the government in the way the judiciary has with its recent verdicts. On Tuesday, the division of the Supreme Court that looks into election malpractice ruled against the former speaker of the parliament, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, for electoral fraud. The punishment for the offence is political rights being revoked and a ban from politics for five years.

But Thai law does not stop with that, since Yongyuth is a former deputy leader of the People Power Party (PPP), which is the dominant partner in the coalition government that Samak heads. In Thailand, an entire political party can be banned if an executive of the party is found guilty of committing electoral fraud.

On the same day, the Constitutional Court ruled that Foreign Minister Noppadorn Pattama had broken the law over the joint communique Thailand signed with Cambodia to pave the way for disputed ancient Hindu temple on the Cambodian side of the Thai-Cambodian border to be recognised as a World Heritage site. The government failed to place this issue before parliament, for scrutiny, the nine-member bench ruled in an 8-1 verdict.

On Jul. 4, the Supreme Court barred the country’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, from leaving the country due to alleged corruption and tax evasion cases involving him and his wife currently before the courts. The twice-elected Thaksin, who was driven from power in a September 2006 military coup, remains a key, behind-the-scenes figure of the ruling PPP.

Other cases that could hurt the government are due to be heard later this month. In the dock are Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee, Labour Minister Uraiwan Thienthong and Deputy Transport Minister Anurak Jureemas. The PAD, however, may have little to cheer, after a lower court ruled last week against its demonstrators permanently blocking streets to hold its rallies.

Little wonder why a new expression has been coined and is being advanced within academic and media circles here to describe the judiciary. ‘’We are witnessing a new trend involving the judiciary. This month’s cases are the latest. It is being called a ‘judicial revolution’,’’ says Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian and dean of the liberal arts faculty at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. ‘’The courts are playing a more decisive role in politics than before.’’

The immediate beneficiary will be the country’s nascent, struggling democracy, Thanet explained in an interview. ‘’The judiciary is helping to strengthen the checks of executive power for the good of our democracy. The public is welcoming the presence of the judiciary in our political struggle.’’

The manner in which the courts have taken on sensitive cases and delivered verdicts against the powerful has even shaped the way Thai politics is being scrutinised in universities. ‘’This shows that Thai people will have to rely more and more on the courts to resolve political problems. This is creating new concepts in Thai politics,’’ Siripan Nogsuan, a political scientist and Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said at a recent seminar under the theme, ‘Crisis, Brinkmanship and Stalemate: What Next for Thailand?’

The excitement about a judiciary with a backbone is understandable in light of how the courts have been viewed in this South-east Asian country over the last decades. ‘’There has been a long-standing belief that courts are so corrupt, so biased, that people had no faith in going to them,’’ says David Streckfuss, an U.S. academic specialising in Thai political culture.

On the political front, too, the superior courts in the past did not stand up to power, when Thailand was under the grip of its many military dictators. ‘’In the 1950s, the courts were happy to justify coups and legitimised the laws introduced by the military dictators that undermined the very laws the judges were supposed to defend,’’ Streckfuss told IPS. ‘’The courts were not taking cases to determine standards and the rule of law, making the government accountable.’’

But new legal mechanisms, which emerged out of a 1997 constitution, the country’s 17th charter, and a seemingly more confident judiciary during Thaksin’s first term as prime minister, from 2001-2005, combined to create a more vibrant judiciary.

Then came the April 2006 speech by the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He told the judges of the administrative and supreme courts to do their job to help resolve a political deadlock and growing tension on the streets. Within weeks, the constitutional court annulled the results of a controversial parliamentary election where the party Thaksin led won sufficient seats to create a one-party state.

‘’Until April 2006 there hadn’t been much awareness that the courts should and could play such a decisive role in the country’s politics,’’ says Streckfuss. ‘’The king’s speech directed the courts to be more active. And since then, the courts have been causing the government a lot of grief.’’

‘’The courts are emerging as a possible key entity to redefine the relationship between the people and the government,’’ says Thanet, the historian. ‘’What we have is a new power equation. Governments will have to face up to it.’’

(END/2008)

Verdict Adds Tension in Thailand

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By JAMES HOOKWAY and PHISANU PHROMCHANYA
July 9, 2008; Page A10

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Supreme Court ruled that a key ally of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was guilty of vote fraud, a verdict that could lead to the banning of the ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party and deepen a two-year-long political crisis in one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies.

[Thailand photo]

 

Yongyuth Tiyapairat

The court banished former parliamentary speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat from politics for five years Tuesday for buying votes. Under Thai law, the party he belongs to can now be ordered to disband by the country’s Constitutional Court. The same court banned Mr. Thaksin’s party following the military coup that toppled him in September 2006.

The verdict is likely to heighten political tensions here and further unnerve foreign investors. The benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand Index has fallen 18% since street protests against the government began in mid-May.

“The government seems to have only two choices,” said Aphisit Limsupanark, an analyst with BFIT Securities PCL in Bangkok. “One is to dissolve Parliament. The other is to buy time waiting for the final verdict from the Constitutional Court.”

HSBC Global Research said Tuesday it has downgraded Thailand’s stock market to underweight from overweight and closed its position in Thai equities because the country’s “serial political instability” is becoming too entrenched.

But political analysts said the Supreme Court ruling shows that Thailand’s courts maintain an independent streak despite the political drama that has been playing out in the country since the 2006 coup.

Mr. Thaksin’s allies in the People Power Party, or PPP, won a general election when democracy was restored in December 2007 and now lead a six-party coalition government with a strong majority in Parliament. Opponents of the PPP have staged regular street protests, accusing the populist telecommunications billionaire of running Thailand from behind the scenes.

However, political power obtained through elections doesn’t necessarily equate to power over the judiciary. People familiar with the situation say many of Thailand’s judges tend to steer clear of politics and are encouraged by the country’s influential monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to reach their own verdicts.

Also on Tuesday, the Supreme Court began a corruption trial involving Mr. Thaksin in the first criminal proceeding he has faced since the Thai army removed him from power.

Prosecutors allege that Mr. Thaksin used his political influence as premier to help his wife buy a prime piece of real estate from the country’s central bank at a bargain price. If convicted, he and his wife each face up to 13 years in prison. Mr. Thaksin denies any wrongdoing.

Suchit Boonbongkarn, a political-science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and a former Constitutional Court judge, said it is hard to predict whether the Constitutional Court will choose to disband the PPP, which is widely viewed as a reincarnation of Mr. Thaksin’s old party, Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais. Mr. Thaksin has declared that he has retired from politics and doesn’t exercise any authority over the party.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the PPP, led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, will respond to the Supreme Court ruling. Deputy PPP leader Kan Tienkaew told reporters Tuesday he will propose to his party that Mr. Samak dissolve Parliament if the PPP is banned and then contest a fresh election under a new banner.

There is also the possibility that Mr. Samak and other senior PPP officials could be banned from politics if the party is dissolved, as happened to Mr. Thaksin and more than 100 Thai Rak Thai party leaders in 2007.

Leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which has organized the street protests against the PPP-led government for 45 days, are growing concerned that Mr. Thaksin’s supporters are strong enough to win any future election simply by advocating his populist policies, which are popular with Thailand’s rural poor.

One of the key anti-Thaksin leaders, publisher and broadcaster Sondhi Limthongkul, on Friday proposed what he described as a “new politics” for Thailand. Under his proposal, only 30% of parliamentarians would be elected and the rest would be appointed by various associations and institutions. Such a radical move would require major constitutional changes, however, and would be unlikely to attract broad popular support.

“The rationale for [the opposition] wanting to dismantle Thailand’s electoral system is evident: Pro-Thaksin forces keep winning elections,” said Michael Conners, a political-science professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who specializes in Thai politics.

–Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this articl

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