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POLITICS-THAILAND: Gov’t Falls As Court Bans Ruling Party

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - A legacy of Thailand’s last military regime prevailed in a superior court’s judgement Tuesday to dissolve the ruling party, which was elected at a December 2007 poll to succeed that very junta that had come to power following the country’s 18th coup.

Somchai Wongsawat, the country’s 26th prime minister and the second person to hold that office this year, was also banned from politics for five years, along with 36 other executives of the People Power Party (PPP). Two other smaller political, which made up the six-party coalition government, suffered a similar fate.

‘’As the court decided to dissolve the People Power Party, therefore the leader of the party and the party executives must be banned from politics for five years,’’ said Chat Chonlaworn, head of the nine-member bench of the Constitutional Court.

The unanimous ruling against the PPP faulted it for vote buying as a political crime. It stemmed from the role of one PPP executive, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, in such an election malpractice at the December 2007 poll. Yongyuth had already been convicted by the Supreme Court for his violation of the election laws.

The court’s ruling was in keeping with a practice introduced by the last military regime to target the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai – TRT) party, which had been in power after winning two elections with thumping mandates till it was turfed out by the military in the September 2006 putsch.

The TRT was dissolved and its 111 executives – including former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – were banned for five years for committing political crimes during a controversial parliamentary elections in April 2006. In that instance, two senior TRT men, who had been cabinet ministers, were faulted for paying smaller, little-known parties to contest that April poll to give it an air of legitimacy.

The judicial body that sunk the TRT was a creation of the junta. And the laws used by the nine-member Constitutional Tribunal were simply orders that the military leaders had issued after capturing power to prevent the powerful TRT, which had deep and wide following among the country’s rural poor, the largest constituency, from returning.

Prior to the coup, the election laws that had been introduced following the country’s 1997 constitution, considered the most democratic of charters, threatened political parties with a ban if executives are faulted with election malpractice. But that did not stop members and leaders from the banned party contesting the next poll, unlike now.

‘’They (the junta) combined the old law with a new order they gave to ban executives of a party found guilty of election malpractices for five years,’’ says Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written extensively on Thai political parties. ‘’The law that targeted the TRT was enforced retroactively.’’

A committee appointed by the junta to draft the 2007 constitution took this law a step further by incorporating into the country’s new election law. ‘’They obliged the coup plotters by transferring the announcement of (the junta) into the new election law,’’ Nelson told IPS. ‘’They helped to institutionalise collective punishment.’’

But the banning of the PPP, created to succeed the TRT and retain its strong vote base, may do little to end the increasingly violent clashes between anti-PPP and pro-PPP groups. The PPP-led coalition has been at the receiving end of withering criticism by a right-wing protest movement, rallying under the banner of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The PAD, which draws its support from the urban middle-class, royalists, the military and entrenched elites, has a political agenda that contradicts its name – drastically rolling back the one-person-one-vote system and wanting the military to mount another coup. It is targeting the PPP as a proxy of Thaksin and continuing the same corrupt practices that the banned TRT was accused of.

Thaksin, currently living in exile, is wanted for a slew of corruption charges, one of which has already found him guilty and given him a two-year jail sentence. Somchai, the premier who was just banned after three months in office, is Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, the PAD announced it was withdrawing its supporters after a week-long siege of the country’s largest international airport. The take over of the Suvarnabhumi airport, south-east of Bangkok, and the domestic Don Muang airport, north of the capital, took the anti-government protests to a new level, but at a heavy economic price to the country.

The PAD’s success at forcefully occupying highly symbolic places in the city – including the prime minister’s office – since late May was possible due to the impunity it enjoyed to break the law. Not only did the army, which is a powerful player in Thai politics, appear sympathetic to the PAD, but the administrative court was also soft on them.

This triggered a backlash by a pro-PPP protest movement, resulting in fatal clashes, at times, between the two groups. This pro-government group, identified by the red shirts they wear to be distinct from the yellow shirts worn by PAD supporters, are livid at Tuesday’s court ruling. There were tense moments outside the Constitutional Court, when the emotionally charged pro-PPP supporters wanted to stop the judges from entering the courts.

The anger at the nine judges, all of whom were appointed to this court during the last military regime, stems from Constitutional Court’s rush to deliver a judgement against the PPP and the two other parties. The judges ignored a request by the accused parties to present a long list witnesses to clear their names, consequently denying them due process of the law.

‘’We are going to let the country know what happened. Public meetings will be held in major provinces to inform the people, our supporters, about what is being done to an elected government,’’ says Jakrapob Penkair, a former PPP government spokesman. ‘’We would not want these protests to turn violent.’’

‘’What is being enforced on us is a structure aimed at reducing the power of elected political parties,’’ he added during an interview. ‘’It is like being trapped in a circle where you are electable but unable to govern because of the powerful anti-democratic forces.’’

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