A Thai court has acquitted the country's ruling Democrat Party of electoral fraud, ending months of speculation over the fate of a squabbling six-party coalition led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who faced a possible ban from politics if the party was found guilty.
The Constitutional Court ruled 4 to 2 that the case against the Democrat Party was unlawful because it was filed incorrectly. Mr. Abhisit’s party still faces a second charge of accepting an illegal corporate donation. But legal experts have said that the second charge may be hamstrung by a lack of documentation.
Abhisit, who took power two years ago amid chaotic protests after his two predecessors were removed by controversial court rulings, said Thailand must accept the judicial process. In an apparent reference to the protesters who took over parts of the capital earlier this year, he added that his government was “prepared to handle whatever will happen.”
Opposition protesters are likely to scorn Monday’s verdict as another sign of how the political and judicial system is stacked against them. Since a military coup in 2006 against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the courts have dissolved four political parties allied to Thaksin, including two that won the largest number of seats in parliament.
Critics accuse Thailand’s royalist elite of using the courts to undermine democracy and strike out pro-Thaksin politicians so that the conservative Democrat Party can rule with military backing.
Anger over the removal of pro-Thaksin governments fueled "red-shirt" protests in April 2009 and in April and May of this year, when 91 people died in Thailand’s bloodiest street violence in two decades. Since April, Bangkok and nearby provinces have been under a state of emergency that allows the military to conduct raids, censor media, and issue decrees.
Democrat Party officials insist that they defended themselves in open court against spurious charges. They argue that the Election Commission only filed its suit because the red shirts stormed their offices during the protests and threatened violence if commissioners failed to act. The alleged fraud came to light when the parliamentary opposition raised it the previous year.
“It was very clear that we didn’t do anything wrong. This case has been politicized. There’s been pressure from other groups who want to see the Democrat Party dissolved,” says Chavanond Intrakomalyasut, a diplomat and Democrat Party member.
At the party headquarters, members watched the live court proceedings on TV. When the verdict was delivered, several jumped to their feet and punched the air. A column of auxiliary police guarded the entrance but there was no sign of any protesters. Activists said the red shirts were gathering outside Bangkok for an evening rally.
The Constitutional Court has been dogged by criticism over political bias. Last month, a series of secret videos of court officials was uploaded to YouTube. In one video, a Democrat lawmaker appeared to lobby the secretary to the court president over the fraud case. Other videos showed judges discussing how to contain a scandal of the hiring of family relatives as court officials.