Thailand court ousts prime minister, making more turmoil likely (+video)

Thailand has a new prime minister. So how long will he last?

By , Staff writer

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    Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra waves to her supporters in Bangkok, Thailand, May 7. Yingluck was ordered by a court to step down Wednesday in a divisive ruling that handed a victory to anti-government protesters who have staged six months of street protests - but does little to resolve the country’s political crisis.
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Thailand's courts accomplished what six months of antigovernment protests could not: the toppling of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier today.

But can her successor Nitwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, previously the commerce minister in her government, hold the country together?

The unanimous decision of the Constitutional Court to remove Ms. Yingluck from power does not settle the long-burning tension between two groups of Thailand’s society with inherently different visions for their country’s future.

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Standing behind Yingluck and her party are many Thais from rural provinces who have benefited from the populist policies she and her brother implemented. Opposing them are thousands of middle-class urbanites and bureaucrats from Bangkok who particularly oppose the powerful Thaksin, a man they consider corrupt and a threat to the monarchy. Thaksin’s opponents want to remove his influence from politics.

“The conflict in Thailand is likely to persist,” Thai political scientist and associate professor at Chulalongkorn University Thitinan Pongsudhirak told The Christian Science Monitor’s Bangkok correspondent Flora Bagenal. “Basically, it has become irreconcilable because both sides think that they can win.” 

Mr. Nitwattumrong, the new prime minister, belongs to Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and is a businessman and politician who has close ties to his predecessor and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who is in self-exile in Dubai.

The Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday that Yingluck overstepped her power when she transferred the national security chief to another position three years ago and replaced him with a relative. The controversial decision was hailed by Yingluck’s opponents and declared a “judicial coup” by her supporters.

It is the third time since 2008 that Thailand’s courts have removed a sitting prime minister aligned with Mr. Thaksin's family, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The court decision – which also mandated that several of Yingluck’s cabinet members resign – raises fresh questions about the national election scheduled for July 20. An earlier election in June was annulled by the Thai courts because opposition parties blocked several polling sites.

No luck

Yingluck’s government, which was an interim government since December, when she called for snap elections in February in the face of massive street protests, had agreed with the Election Commission that a new election would be scheduled for July.

However, a decree for the new election has yet to be submitted for royal approval, Bloomberg reports, and the main opposition Democrat Party has threatened to boycott the July elections as well.

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.

After the verdict, opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban led celebrators “through the streets of the city’s financial district in a kind of victory march,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

In additional to uncertainty over the election, there is fear of escalated street protests. Protests have killed at least 25 people in the past six months.

Leaders of the “red shirt” movement that supports Yingluck and her brother called for a mass rally on Saturday.

The Economist’s Banyan blog write that the “dangerous lesson” that the red shirts may glean from this is that “the courts are illegitimate, and that democracy and winning elections gets them nowhere.”

The more militant had promised that they would take to the streets in mass rallies to protest if Ms Yingluck was ousted by the court, and that may well happen now, leading to violent confrontation with their equally militant yellow-shirt opponents. Thus the cycle of political violence that has plagued Thailand for almost ten years looks set to continue, and may intensify.

An antigovernment protester celebrating at Bangkok’s Lumphini Park told the Monitor’s correspondent that “this is our victory of the people, and I think everyone in Thailand is going to celebrate our victory, from now on.”

For new Prime Minister Niwatthamrong, balancing the two sides may be a skill he's prepared for – even though his ties with Thaksin will be controversial – political scientist Naruemon Thabchumpon from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters.

"Thaksin trusts him a lot, he's got a reputation as a good networker who knows PR and can deal with all sides," he says. "Niwatthamrong is not abrasive and he knows not to make enemies, especially at this time."

Flora Bagenal contributed reporting from Bangkok.

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