Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine of her ministers were found guilty by the country's Constitutional Court of abuse of power. But while the opposition hails the ruling, a political solution seems far away.
In a televised ruling, presiding judge Charoon Intachan said on Wedneday (07.05.2014) that Yingluck could no longer stay in her position as acting prime minister. Although the judgment is final, not all cabinet ministers are affected by it, thus enabling the caretaker government to carry on with its work. Shortly after the court's decision, Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan was appointed acting premier.
The verdict stems from a ruling by the country's Administrative Court in March this year which stated that Yingluck had improperly transferred the National Security Council chief, Thawil Pliensri, in a 2011 reshuffle that allowed her brother-in-law to become national police chief. The court had found that Thawil's removal from office had been unlawful, allowing him to resume his former post.
Yingluck had testified in court that she had acted in the interest of the country. However, the Constitutional Court upheld on Wednesday the plaintiffs' claims that she had illegally interfered in the administration.
A foreseeable ruling?
The judgement comes as no surprise. It's no secret that Thailand's courts don't sympathize with the current government. Moreover, this is the third time since 2006 that the Constitutional Court has forced a prime minister to step down. In 2008, the Constitutional Court stripped then Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of his powers, ruling he illegally accepted payments for hosting TV cooking shows.
That same year, his successor, Somchai Wongsawat was removed from office and banned from politics for five years after being found guilty of electoral fraud. Both politicians had been criticized by the opposition for being too close to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The tycoon-turned-politician, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, is Yingluck's brother.
More propaganda ahead
Wilfried A. Herrmann, managing director of the Thailand-based Human Development Forum Foundation, says the judgment was lenient as it allowed for enough ministers to stay in office to keep the caretaker government running. He also argues that the court's latest ruling was made within the framework of the Constitution and that it is therefore unlikely that either the government or its supporters will contest its validity.
The analyst believes a propaganda war is next: "Each side will present the ruling as a victory for their cause." Herrmann explains that while the opposition will argue that Premier Yingluck was convicted, the government will emphasize that it is still in charge. "However, one has to face the fact that the court ruling cannot be seen as a solution to the current crisis," Herrmann added.
Thailand's political turmoil is therefore likely to continue. The opposition has already announced mass demonstrations on May 14, with observers expecting some 150,000 protesters to take to the streets of Bangkok. But the upcoming rainy season might help cooling things down a bit. "It rains cats and dogs and this might quickly bring down the number of demonstrators to a couple of thousand," said Herrmann.
A months-long power struggle
The judgment marks the latest twist in Thailand's long-running political crisis. The protests were ignited last November when the Yingluck-led administration tried to ram through parliament a controversial bill that would have given amnesty to political offenders of the previous eight years, including Thaksin.
The country has witnessed a bitter power struggle between the Shinawatra family and the elites of the country ever since. During his five-year premiership between 2001 and 2006 Thaksin won the support of the residents of Thailand's northern provinces by introducing an affordable health care system.
This, in turn, has had the political effect that the wealthy elites based in Bangkok and the tourist destinations in the south haven't been able to win a single national election ever since.
"Thaksin clearly improved the living standards of millions," Anja Bodemüller and Gerhard Will wrote in a study published by the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). However, Thaksin also undermined the creation of independent institutions by establishing a system based on rampant corruption and nepotism, they argue.
As soon as Thaksin's return seemed possible last November, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets and occupied both government buildings and important intersections of the capital. The protesters accused Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother Thaksin and demanded that her government be replaced by a non-elected "people's council" to oversee reforms before any future vote.
The massive demonstrations led Yingluck to announce general elections. But the February poll was nullified by Thailand's Constitutional Court after some protesters succeeded in disrupting the vote in parts of the country. According to the Thai constitution, national elections can only be held on a single day. To this day, 23 people have died and almost 800 have been injured in the protests.