Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by the Constitutional Court, raising the risk of fresh protests in the capital after months of unrest.
Yingluck, 46, “violated the constitution,” Judge Udomsak Nitimontree said today in a nationally-televised ruling. She transferred the secretary-general of the National Security Council in 2011 in a process that “indicates an abuse of power,” the judge said.
Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan will become acting leader of the caretaker government in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, according to Phongthep Thepkanjana, another deputy premier, who spoke after an emergency cabinet meeting in Bangkok.
The nine judges in their unanimous decision invalidated Yingluck’s ministerial status, limiting her government’s ability to continue until a new vote the Election Commission has agreed to hold July 20. The verdict could prolong a crisis that began with anti-government protests last October and has its roots in the removal of Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup.
The government’s mainly rural supporters called the Red Shirts have vowed to rally in Bangkok on May 10, while leaders across the spectrum and the army chief have warned a politically-divided Thailand, the world's second-largest exporter of rice, is at risk of civil war. Political violence has killed at least 25 people since November.
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Yingluck said in a televised address she had not breached the law and was unsure if she would continue in politics.
“I have worked two years, nine months and two days,” Yingluck said. “Every day, every minute of my work, I am proud to have been elected prime minister,” she said. “No matter what I will become, I will work for the Thai people.”
The ruling is a coordinated attempt to “destroy” the ruling Pheu Thai Party, deputy party leader Phokin Palakul said at a briefing carried on local television. “We urge people who love democracy to express their opposition to the ruling in peaceful ways,” he said. Continuing with the July vote is “a way to end the political crisis in a democratic way.”
Opponents of Yingluck have demanded she make way for an unelected government that would rewrite the nation’s political rules to remove her family’s influence. The protesters have said a verdict removing Yingluck would create the political vacuum needed to install an interim government.
“The question is will the current government without Yingluck be able to hold it together,” Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and independent political analyst, said by e-mail. With her departure “the situation can change very quickly for the worse.”
About 10 members of Yingluck’s 36-member cabinet who were involved in the 2011 transfer will also step down, including Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong, Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul and Labor Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, according to the court ruling.
“The political deadlock continues as many ministers are still able to work in acting roles,” Poramet Tongbua, an investment strategist at Bualuang Securities Pcl, said by phone. “The current ruling coalition will continue its attempt to speed up the election. This won’t please the anti-government demonstrators who demanded a middleman as the new prime minister to undergo political reforms before any election.”
Risk to Growth
The benchmark SET Index fell 0.1 percent to 1,402.61, after slipping 1.2 percent yesterday. The baht was steady against the dollar.
Political uncertainty is “the main cause for higher downside risks to growth,” the Bank of Thailand said in the minutes of its April 23 monetary policy meeting, released today.
“There is cooperation between some political parties, the PDRC and some agencies under the constitution to perform a new form of coup by destroying democracy, obstructing elections, and acting with bias and injustice,” Pheu Thai said in a statement yesterday. The protesters have named themselves the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.
The government has had limited powers since December, when Yingluck dissolved parliament and called elections in a bid to end the protests. The February poll was invalidated by a court on the grounds the vote did not take place across the country on the same day, something that wasn’t possible as protesters blocked voting in some areas.
The government and the Election Commission have agreed to the new poll on July 20, though a decree has yet to be submitted for royal approval. The main opposition Democrat Party has threatened to boycott that vote, as it did in February.
The protesters, a mix of Bangkok’s middle class and southerners led by former Democrat politician Suthep Thaugsuban, accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her brother who was ousted amid anti-government protests and lives in exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction. They accuse the Shinawatras of crony capitalism, abuse of power and using populist policies to secure the support of rural voters.
The protesters say no elections should be held until the political system is revamped to make sure Thaksin and his allies can never win another election. Thaksin-allied parties have won the past five ballots, while the Democrats haven’t won a poll in more than two decades.
The ruling removing Yingluck may fuel allegations from Red Shirts that the nation’s courts and watchdog agencies are biased against them. The institutions were given increased powers under the 2007 constitution, which was written by a panel appointed by the junta that seized power in the coup.
A military-appointed court in 2007 disbanded Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party for breaking election laws, banning him and more than 100 party executives from politics for five years.
Amid the seizure of Bangkok’s airports by anti-government protesters in 2008, the Constitutional Court found Thaksin’s allies guilty of vote buying, disbanding their party and banning another 30 executives, including then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law.
That ruling, which came just weeks after the court ordered Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej to step down as prime minister for hosting a cooking show, opened the door for the Democrats to take control of the government in a parliamentary vote that the Red Shirts refer to as a judicial coup.
More recently, a court ruled in November that an attempt by ruling party lawmakers to return the Senate to a fully-elected body was a bid to overthrow democracy. In February, a lower court stripped the government of many of the powers provided by a state of emergency called to deal with the protests.
Red Shirt demonstrations calling for new elections in 2009 and 2010 were put down by the military, with the latter protests resulting in more than 90 deaths. Suthep, deputy prime minister at the time, faces murder charges for allowing soldiers to use live ammunition against protesters in 2010.