Thai court disbands ousted prime minister's political party

Thursday, May 31, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A court disbanded the political party of Thailand's ousted prime minister Wednesday, barring him and 110 party executives from politics for five years due to election law violations.

The ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal followed a guilty verdict against the Thai Rak Thai Party for financing obscure parties to run against it in elections last year to get around turnout rules. The court also disbanded three smaller parties, two of them hired by Thai Rak Thai.

The ban is a stunning end for a party that just two years ago was the most powerful in Thailand. Its demise began after the military overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September. The bloodless coup followed demonstrations by tens of thousands of people demanding Thaksin's resignation and accusing him of corruption.

"The defendant is responsible for holding up democratic ways, but instead it used parliamentary election only as a means to achieve totalitarian power," Judge Vichai Chuenchompoonuj said.

"It goes to show that the defendant does not believe in the democratic system," he said of the party. "It also shows no respect for the rule of law which is key to the democratic system."

The decision cannot be appealed. It was greeted by shock and tears at Thai Rak Thai headquarters, where hundreds gathered to watch the nationally televised ruling.

Party leader Chaturon Chaisaeng said Thai Rak Thai would not challenge the ruling and asked people across the country not to protest. But speaking later outside the court, he said "the whole country is unlikely to accept this."

"We weren't treated fairly. The ruling was made on the basis that those who seize power can decide what's right and wrong even if that power comes from the barrel of a gun," he said.

In London, where he is living in exile, Thaksin urged supporters to remain calm ahead of the ruling. "We have to respect the rules of the game. That is, the rule of the law," he said.

The decision against Thai Rak Thai came hours after the Democrat Party, the country's oldest and a bitter rival of Thaksin's party, was found innocent of election law violations.

Besides strengthening the Democrat Party, the court's decision is likely to unleash a flurry of political activity, with new parties springing up to fill the vacuum left by Thai Rak Thai. The military-backed government has promised to hold elections at the end of the year after a new constitution is promulgated.

The court ruled the Democrat Party had not unfairly maligned Thaksin or breached election laws by urging voters to cast a "no" vote -- the equivalent of an abstention -- in last year's elections. It also found the Democrat Party innocent of using a smaller party to trick Thai Rak Thai into election law violations, and ruled it had not obstructed a parliamentary candidate from registering in a southern constituency.

"There are no legal grounds to disband" the Democrat Party, a judge announced, bringing cheers and chants of "Democrats fight on!" from crowds gathered at the party headquarters.

"Today is the day many of us have been waiting for," Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said. "I want it to be the day that we close the chapter of confusion, stress and strain in the country. From tomorrow on, we have much to do and our priority is to bring back democracy to the country and go forward with the elections."

Thai Rak Thai became the first party in Thai history to win an absolute majority in parliament in 2005, and by all accounts it remains popular with rural voters for its populist policies.

In February 2006, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called for early elections to try to defuse protests and secure his mandate. The three main opposition parties boycotted the vote.

Thaksin's party won the April 2006 poll but was unable to convene parliament for lack of a quorum. The poll was later annulled by the courts. The party was accused of violating election laws by paying off other parties to sidestep the quorum rule.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont warned Wednesday that he would re-impose a state of emergency if violence erupted. Thousands of security officers fanned out across the Thai capital, and political Web sites were shut down amid fears of unrest. However, the capital remained calm.

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