Thai PM faces court as ban threat hangs over party

Thailand’s prime minister is due in court on Monday as his party tries to fend off a possible ban that threatens to further shake the kingdom’s fractured political landscape.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, alongside other executives, faces a five-year ban from politics and the ruling Democrat Party could be dissolved if it is found guilty of corruption by the Constitutional Court.

The premier is set to be a witness for the defence in what could be the final hearing before judges rule on the case, which centres on claims of misuse of a 29-million-baht (900,000-dollar) state grant in 2005.

“We are satisfied with the facts we have presented to the court and confident our party has done nothing wrong,” Democrat lawyer Virat Kalayasiri told AFP.

The party faces accusations that it paid 23 million baht to advertising firms, despite only having permission to spend 19 million on billboard marketing.

Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) in April called for the party to be abolished over the claims as well as a separate case alleging an undeclared political donation.

Abhisit on Sunday rejected accusations that a member of his party had attempted to influence the court’s decision.

“It is not necessary to do that. The Constitutional Court should be independent and we do not want to see any lobbying,” he said on his weekly television show.

The Prime Minister added that the court is likely to reach a verdict next month.

Judicial rulings have played a pivotal role in shaping the kingdom’s politics in the past.

The Democrats, Thailand’s oldest party, came to power two years ago after controversial court decisions ousted allies of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was dislodged in a 2006 military coup.

Two premiers were deposed from office by the judiciary in 2008 — one of whom, Samak Sundaravej, was removed for taking payments for hosting TV cooking shows.

Uncertainty over the government comes at a difficult stage for the deeply divided country.

April’s EC intervention coincided with a tense standoff between troops and “Red Shirts”, which descended into violence that left over 90 people dead and almost 1,900 injured during two months of unrest.

Experts question whether powers thought to support Abhisit’s ruling coalition — including the military and Yellow Shirt movement, representing the Bangkok elite in palace circles — would allow the Democrats to be toppled.

Author and former Thai diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun said he does not believe the party will be disbanded.

“What is the point of staging a military coup in the first place when they know the party they rely on will have to be dissolved?” he said.

However, he said one potential motive would be as a gesture to the Red Shirts to rebuff allegations of double standards in the legal system.

Pavin said “even then, they will have a plan B”, with rumours that a new party would swiftly rise from the ashes of the old.

“They will still carry on the mission of maintaining the status quo but that is a deeper, more complicated game. I still don’t believe that the Democrat party will be dissolved,” he said.

Michael Montesano, of the Institute of South East Asia Studies in Singapore, said: “It is possible that there will be dissolution of the Democrat Party and it could happen for one of several reasons.”

He said it could be that the Yellows “decided that the Democrats and Abhisit had outlived their usefulness”, or the judge makes the decision on the basis of the law. Another reason would be as a concession to reconciliation efforts.

Montesano said it appears a new party — “Democrat in all but name” — would try to boost its electoral chances ahead of next year’s poll.

But Montesano said those involved still had not managed to reach out to the rural poor and working class.

“There is every indication that the Democrats and their allies do not really know what to do in order to reshape the political landscape so that they can win the next election.” he said.