Thailand's already turbulent political landscape was thrown into further turmoil Tuesday when the Constitutional Court dissolved the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and two of its coalition partners for electoral fraud. As the verdict was read that the government leadership, including the current prime minister, would step down, anti-government protesters occupying Bangkok's two main airports erupted into cheers and waived Thai flags. Red-shirted government supporters, who had gathered outside the court building to try and prevent the proceedings, dismissed the decision as a judicial coup d'etat.
The decisions spell the end of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's brief term in power, as he is one of the 35-member executive board of the ruling People Power Party. Executive board members are banned from politics for five years as a result of the decision. Somchai said that he accepted the court's call for him to step down shortly after the verdict was announced; the ruling coalition, however, should remain largely intact. Regular members of the three parties the People Power Party, Chart Thai Party and Matchima Thipithai Party have 60 days to join another political party. PPP members were already preparing to migrate to the newly formed Puea Thai Party, and other parties have been set up to accommodate members of Chart Thai and Matchima Thipathai. In total, 109 lawmakers were banned.
The government supporters' claim that the verdict was an act of judicial activism was dismissed by some. "The court had plenty of evidence to justify its decision," said Jade Donavanik, a former dean of the faculty of law at Siam University. "This is not a judicial coup because the evidence was there. It may be perceived that way because only government coalition parties were on trial. The opposition Democrats were not, but they hadn't had any case brought against them from the beginning."
The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy has said it will abandon its occupation of Suvarnabhumi international airport and Don Muang domestic airport, and passenger flights are expected to resume. Protesters seized the airports last Tuesday, stranding an estimated 350,000 travelers and tourists and causing untold economic losses. The capital's patience for the occupation is wearing thin. "The PAD leaders must also be tried for breaking the law. They have trespassed on property and caused damage which they must pay for," Donavanik said.
The PAD has also been demanding that parliament be dissolved. They accuse the ruling coalition of trying to change the country's constitution to wipe away the electoral fraud cases against it, and convictions and corruption cases against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law, and Thaksin is widely believed to be the real power behind the party. The former prime minister is living in exile, having fled a two-year jail sentence on a conflict of interest conviction.
The case against the PPP and its coalition partners stemmed from an electoral fraud charge against party executive Yongyuth Tiyapairat. The country's Election Commission, and then the Supreme Court, ruled he had bribed local administrators to campaign for his party during the December 2007 national election. The Constitutional Court was tasked with deciding if the executive boards of each party knew enough about the wrongdoings of its members to justify recommendations by the Election Commission and the Office of the Attorney General that the parties be dissolved.
It is not yet clear if the verdicts will tamp down tensions or inflame opposing sides of the protests that have engulfed the Thai capital. Fears of clashes between the PAD and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have been mounting in recent days, and several PAD members have been killed or wounded in grenade attacks on their protest sites during the past week. One PAD member was killed and 22 wounded early Tuesday when an unknown assailant fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the passenger terminal at Don Muang airport. "We need a system in this country where elections can be cleaned up without the results being wiped away. All sides have to respect democracy, although democracy is not always a beautiful thing," Donavanik said. "I'm worried about the aftermath."