Thai party’s disbandment solves little
When Thailand’s most senior judges were deciding the future of the nation’s two main parties, they knew that whatever verdict they came to, it was bound to be controversial.The former governing party Thai Rak Thai and its main opposition, the Democrat Party, were charged with electoral fraud.
If found guilty, they could have faced being disbanded.
Had both parties been taken off the political map, it would have left a serious vacuum, not least because a general election has been tentatively scheduled for December.
But a decision to exonerate both parties – especially Thai Rak Thai – would have called into question the legitimacy of last year’s military coup, which swept the party from power amid accusations of widespread corruption.
End of an era
In the end, after a marathon 10-hour constitutional tribunal session on Wednesday, the Democrats were acquitted of all charges, but Thai Rak Thai was found guilty and had to pay a heavy price.
“The Thai Rak Thai party did not respect the rule of law,” one of the judges said. “Therefore the court orders to dissolve the Thai Rak Thai party.”
With these words, Thailand’s largest and arguably still its most popular party was consigned to political history.
More than 110 of its senior executives – including the charismatic and populist ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – were banned from politics for five years.
From his home in London, Mr Thaksin issued a statement saying he accepted the verdict, and urged his supporters to remain calm.
But several thousand protesters have already come out onto the streets of Bangkok to voice their support for Thai Rak Thai and their anger at the coup which took it from power.
Similar protests look likely to continue in the weeks and months ahead.
Many Thai analysts are also saying that the decision to dissolve Thai Rak Thai was unnecessarily draconian, and even unfairly influenced by the interim government, which was installed by the military soon after the coup.
“This shows that the judges are not independent of the military junta,” said Giles Ungpakorn, a political commentator at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“This was a political decision to get rid of Mr Thaksin and his party, and it was one-sided and unfair.”
“The penalty was too harsh,” added Pasuk Pongpaijitr, the author of several books on Thai politics.
“Although it’s true that Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai did commit electoral fraud, you can’t help thinking that this is a political judgement as much as a legal judgement.”
Dr Pasuk cited a popular Thai saying that when you meet a poisonous snake, you have to kill it, because if you don’t it will come back again and again.
“The coup last September was when the military junta tried to hit back at the snake [Thaksin]. This verdict was an opportunity to kill it completely,” she said.
But removing what the military may see as a venomous ex-leader from the forthcoming electoral process does not guarantee that it will go without a hitch.
The interim government has promised to hold an election by the end of the year, but before this can take place it must get its new constitution agreed by a public referendum.
According to Mr Ungpakorn, Thai Rak Thai supporters may vote against the constitution in protest at the tribunal’s decision to dissolve the party.
“There are millions of people who will be unhappy with the decision to disband Thai Rak Thai,” he said, pointing to the 13 million Thais who voted for the party in the last election.
“People who want to protest can use the referendum as an avenue in which to do it,” he said.
Even if the constitution is approved, and the election goes ahead, it will be bereft of many of Thailand’s most experienced political minds.
“About half of the country’s most senior politicians will now be barred from the system because of the tribunal’s ruling,” said Dr Pasuk. “It’s going to create havoc.”
The coup leaders and the military-appointed government could also come for criticism because the election may end up being a one-horse race, with the Democrat Party virtually assured of victory.
Paradoxically this is a reversal of the situation Thailand found itself in last year, when Thai Rak Thai was the only major party standing, because the Democrats had decided to boycott the polls.
After weeks of political chaos, including the allegations of electoral fraud that led to Wednesday’s tribunal decision, that poll was eventually annulled.
So Thailand looks set to have a few rocky months ahead – and despite the authorities’ best attempts, even the “snake” remains a problem.
Mr Thaksin has lost his party and his political position, he is banned from any type of political activity for five years and may even face arrest if he returns to Thailand, but he still remains a force to be reckoned with.
“You can never completely discount Thaksin from making a comeback,” said Dr Pasuk. “Even if he is away for a long time, people will still remember his legacy.”