Thai Rak Thai dissolved, ex-premier Thaksin banned from politics

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thailand's former ruling party, Thai Rak Thai, was found guilty of election fraud by a Constitutional Tribunal, and ordered to be dissolved. Its former leader, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and 110 party leaders are banned from politics for five years, the court also ruled.

Thaksin, responding to the ruling from London, told the BBC: "We have to respect the rules of the game. That is, the rule of the law. If the rules of the law are observed, we have to respect it."

But Thaksin's lawyer and spokesman in Bangkok, Noppadon Pattama, called the verdict "unexpected", and told Reuters, "It's too harsh on Thai Rak Thai."

Earlier, the nation's main opposition party, the Democrat Party, was acquitted of six charges of election fraud, and allowed to remain intact.

The tribunal was reviewing violations that took place during the April 2, 2006 general elections, which were declared invalid due to widespread charges of corruption and vote buying. Another election was scheduled for October 2006, but after a military-led coup on September 19, that election was never held.

Ousted prime minister and former Thai Rak Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra is banned from politics for five years.

Thai Rak Thai (literally "Thais love Thais"), was formerly headed by Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon and ex-prime minister who was ousted in last year's coup.

The tribunal said two party leaders, former deputy leader Thamarak Isarangura and former deputy secretary-general Pongsak Ruktapongpisal, hired two smaller parties to contest the April election on behalf of Thai Rak Thai. The two were Cabinet members at the time. The Tribunal also dissolved the two implicated smaller parties, Pattana Chart Thai and Pandin Thai, and banned their executives from politics for five years.

Thai Rak Thai lawyers countered that the party's top leadership could not have known about Thamarak and Pongsak's plans, but the judges dismissed that assertion.

"The Thai Rak Thai party did not respect the rule of law despite the fact that they won elections twice," said one of the judges in his ruling. "Thai Rak Thai cannot exist as a political party, therefore the court orders to dissolve the Thai Rak Thai party."

Thai Rak Thai acting leader Chaturon Chaisang said that the ban was "totally unexpected", but he urged supporters to not fight the decision. "Even if we don't agree with the ruling, I ask all Thai Rak Thai members not to protest or oppose the ruling," he said.

The final verdict was read at 11:36 p.m. local time (1636 GMT), and came after a long, suspenseful afternoon and evening of proceedings that began at 2 p.m. The proceedings were broadcast on all of Thailand's television channels, and local newspapers updated their coverage in real time on their websites.

In the run-up to what was called "Judgement Day" in the local media, tensions were high. Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont warned that he would impose a state of emergency if there was any violence. Thousands of security officers were stationed at checkpoints across the capital, with a 15,000-strong security force at the ready in their barracks. The junta also ordered that some political websites be blocked. King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a rare televised address when he granted an audience to the court's judges, and urged them to use care in their deliberations.

Some schools were closed out of security concerns, but there were no signs of large protests. Fewer than 200 people gathered quietly behind police barricades across the road from the court, and parties kept their supporters away from the site.

The Democrat Party faced six charges, among them accusations that it had paid off members of two smaller parties, the Progressive Democrat Party and the Better Life Party, to frame Thai Rak Thai of trying to buy their votes. But the Democrats were acquitted on all charges.

"The facts cannot prove that the Democrats did any wrongdoing so there is no reason to dissolve the Democrats," said Thanit Kesawapitak, one of nine tribunal judges.

However, the Progressive Democratic Party was found guilty of rigging its membership records, and ordered dissolved. Furthermore, the party's leaders are banned from politics for five years. The party was found guilty of falsifying its membership records to enable its candidates to run in three constituencies in Trang.

Democrat Party members sitting in the court room appeared to be relieved as they heard the verdict read.

At the Democrats' headquarters, the mood was celebratory. Crowds lined the streets to the offices, and leaders were greeted with cheers and applause and given bouquets of flowers.

"Today's victory is for people and the country," Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told supporters. "Today is the end of pressure on the party and the people. What I wish from is that the Council of National Security and the government holds the national election as promised and as scheduled," he said.

The Council of National Security, the junta's ruling body, has promised a national referendum on a new constitution, with elections by December.

The Democrat Party is Thailand's oldest political party, founded in 1945, and has mainly been an opposition party. With Chuan Leekpai as prime minister, the Democrats led coalition governments from 1992 to 1995 and again from 1997 to 2001, when Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai were swept to power on a tide of populist sentiment. Since being ousted in last year's coup, Thaksin has lived in self-imposed exile outside Thailand, mainly in London.

Now, with Thai Rak Thai removed from the scene, the Democrats are likely to return to power if the promised elections are held, said Michael Montesano, who teaches Thai politics at the National University of Singapore.