x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Thai court set to deliver ruling on PM funding case

BANGKOK // Thailand's Constitutional Court is today set to deliver a ruling in an electoral funding case that could result in the dissolution of the ruling Democrat Party and the removal of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The judge said he would start reading the verdict, which could take several hours, at 2pm (0700 GMT).

The verdict could complicate a political crisis studded with street protests, party dissolutions and military intervention. The stock market was nervous ahead of the ruling.

Thailand's oldest party is accused of misusing an election grant from the state Election Commission before a 2005 poll. 

The case is the first of two against the conservative, pro-establishment party, which came to power after a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 that followed a court order to dissolve a ruling party allied with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The toppling of Thaksin in a 2006 military coup, plus the dissolution by the courts of two parties allied with him and the "red shirt" movement, widened bitter political divisions in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

Some analysts felt it was unlikely the case would end with both the dissolution of the Democrat Party and a blanket political ban on executives of Mr Abhisit's party.

"There are several legal provisions that could be considered and several possible outcomes but it would be quite extraordinary for it to go that far," said Karn Yuenyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, an independent think tank.

Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister who is the Democrat Party's lead lawyer and adviser, argued the case was pursued with "ill intention" after the Election Commission was put under pressure by the "red shirts".

The case comes at a difficult time for the Oxford-educated Mr Abhisit, whose coalition government has been weakened by infighting.

A verdict against Mr Abhisit would be a setback for the party's powerful backers in the military and royalist elite, but analysts say contingency plans are probably in place to ensure some sort of continuity.

As many as 31 executives could be banned for five years, although the only high-profile casualty would be Mr Abhisit, who was the party's deputy leader at the time of the funding incident.

If the party is dissolved, the bulk of its parliamentarians could form a new party or switch to another they may have already registered in anticipation of such a verdict.

If Mr Abhisit is disqualified along with other executives, a caretaker premier would probably fill in until the new Democrat incarnation could propose a new candidate to parliament.

On the other hand, a complete acquittal could bring a backlash from the Democrats' opponents in the "red shirt" movement. Protracted street protests by this group earlier this year ended in a bloody military crackdown in May.

Mr Abhisit has repeatedly said he would call elections next year, before his term expires, as long as the country is peaceful.