A military-installed court Wednesday dissolved former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's political party, Thai Rak Thai, and banned more than 100 senior members from political activities for five years, solidifying the military's grip on power ahead of elections scheduled for December.
The ruling increases the likelihood that the next government will be on friendly terms with the military, which ousted Mr. Thaksin in a bloodless coup last September. But opposition parties are still wary that Thaksin, who is living in exile in London, could continue to exert influence from afar, possibly via a new political party run by former Thai Rak Thai politicians who escaped censure.
In a lengthy court session that ended at midnight in the Thai capital, nine Constitution Tribunal judges found Thai Rak Thai guilty of bribing small parties to run in the boycotted April 2006 election, which the courts eventually voided. Although Bangkok elites who supported the coup cheered the decision, critics said it was a harsh punishment and another step back for the country's immature democracy.
"The ruling was very political and the court showed a total lack of independence from the junta," said Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and a prominent anticoup activist. "What we see here is the work of the coup finished by courts so they can hold elections that won't contain Thai Rak Thai… It hasn't solved the problem; it's made the problem worse."
Along with changes to the Constitution that limit the role of elected politicians in favor of appointed judges and senators, the court ruling appears to ensure that the military and royalist elites who conspired to oust Thaksin will keep politicians on a short leash after the next election. The opposition Democrat Party was acquitted by the court on related fraud charges, putting it in a strong position to contest the next elections.
The ruling enforced an ex post facto law dictated by the junta that stripped the voting rights from executive members of dissolved parties for five years, meaning they can't run for public office. The previous punishment said executive members were banned from forming a new party or sitting on a leadership board, but they could still run for office.
While the judgment was ostensibly directed at Thai Rak Thai's campaign tactics, the judges blasted the party as a threat to democracy that existed only to benefit its charismatic leader.
"Thai Rak Thai took our Constitution and politicized it and exercised power for every purpose," says Kaewsan Atibhodi, secretary-general of a committee charged with investigating Thaksin. "So the judges have some justification to say that you are dangerous, you have to go and we don't want to see you again."
By breaking up Thailand's dominant party, the court has created the conditions for a political realignment.
However, few expect a smooth ride to the next election. Thai Rak Thai rose to power in 2001 with policies that appealed to poor, rural voters like cheap healthcare, microcredit, and repression of drug traffickers and local mafia. In 2005, Thaksin's party cemented its success by winning three-quarters of Thailand's parliament – the first party ever to gain legislative majority – by exploiting Thailand's stark class divisions.
Many analysts doubt Wednesday's ruling will heal those socioeconomic rifts, and fear more turmoil is around the corner.
In television interviews Thursday, Thaksin urged Thai Rak Thai's 14 million or so supporters to respect the verdict. Acting party leader Chaturon Chaiseng was less conciliatory, though. After the verdict was read, he retorted that, "This is what you get in a dictatorship" before TV cameras abruptly cut away.
Despite fears of public unrest among Thaksin supporters, Bangkok has stayed calm. Thaksin loyalists say they will continue to use lawful means to push back against what they see as a politically biased verdict.
"If we lie down and accept what has been done to us, people will lose faith in the political process and democratization," said Jakrapob Penkair, a former Thai Rak Thai lawmaker who has led peaceful rallies against the junta. "I believe we are obliged to do our best to show the powers that be that we will not take this, and the fight will continue. How to make that fight civil is our challenge, because we don't want to fall into the military's trap."
Before the verdict last week, revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej met with senior judges and said any decision the court makes would lead to trouble. Although the king's words are couched in ambiguity and hard to interpret, analysts saw it as an effort to forestall any protests over the landmark ruling.