Ruling leaves Thai democracy reeling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2007, 12:00am

A court has ordered the dissolution of Thai Rak Thai, the political party ousted from government by last September's military coup, for electoral fraud in a judgment that upends political fortunes and casts more shadows over the prospects for democracy in Thailand.

Dissolution also brought into play a regulation issued by the junta withdrawing political rights from party executives for five years - effectively banning them from voting, running parties or standing in elections. Consequently, 111 Thai Rak Thai members, a who's who of Thai politics, were left scrabbling around for loopholes.

Thai Rak Thai politicians grudgingly agreed to abide by the ruling, and fears of protests and riots have proved unfounded, for now.

The verdict has helped shore up the Council for National Security's argument that the coup was justified because the government was emasculating democracy and its ministers were engaging in corruption.

There is some merit in those charges. Thaksin Shinawatra's government failed to enact some laws required by the constitution. Its crackdowns on the retail end of the drug trade were accompanied by 2,500 murders. Charges of corruption were, however, pretty typical for a Thai government.

In short, Thai Rak Thai and Mr Thaksin do have a lot to answer for. However, this trial was about a few cases of poll fraud. The punishment, which outweighs the crimes, appears a foil to nail the party because the junta is running out of time. The generals have promised a referendum on the new constitution in August, with an election by December.

Furthermore, the tribunal's neutrality and legitimacy to hand out such heavy penalties are questionable, as it sits under the auspices of an unelected regime.

The judgments have also damaged support for democracy among millions of farmers, labourers, factory hands and merchants who put the Thai Rak Thai in power. Many are in no mood to approve the junta's constitution, and there is little enthusiasm for an election.

Even the junta had second thoughts. General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, its chairman, floated an amnesty for party executives, though he quickly backtracked. Nevertheless, the banned politicians could be back much sooner than the judges intended.

This show does leave a winner: the Democrat Party, which was found not guilty by the tribunal. The Democrats, who applauded the coup, now have a good shot at forming the next government, albeit almost certainly a coalition.

The verdicts handed down by the tribunal have served the junta and the Democrats well, eliminating their biggest bugbear. They have not served the cause of strong, open democracy. Millions of voters have been effectively disenfranchised.

Smashing Thai Rak Thai has created a new political landscape conducive to coalitions, which neatly fits the aims of the junta's draft constitution.

David Fullbrook is a freelance writer and political analyst