Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been ordered by a court to step down.
The ruling – which will antagonise her supporters – appears to hand victory to anti- government activists after six months of street protests.
The Constitutional Court found the leader guilty of abusing power by transferring a senior civil servant to another position in 2011. It ruled this benefited her powerful Shinawatra clan and so violated the constitution – a claim she denies.
The ruling also forced out nine cabinet members but left nearly two dozen others in their posts, including deputy prime minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who was quickly appointed the new acting leader.
“Transferring government officials must be done in accordance with moral principle,” the court said in its ruling, which was read out on live television for almost 90 minutes.
“Transferring with a hidden agenda is not acceptable.”
Two hours after the verdict, a smiling Ms Shinawatra appeared on TV to thank supporters, emphasise she was an elected leader and assert her innocence.
“We held true to the principles of honesty in running the country, and never acted corruptly,” said the 46-year-old, who swept to power nearly three years ago as Thailand’s first female prime minister.
The judgment marks the latest twist in a long-running political crisis. It was a victory for Ms Shinawatra’s opponents, mostly from the urban elite, and those in the south, who have been engaged in sometimes violent street protests demanding she step down to make way for an interim leader.
However, the ruling leaves Thailand in political limbo and primed for more violence. Since November, more than 20 people have been killed and hundreds injured in gun battles, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks.The court’s decision casts doubt on whether new elections planned for July will take place. This would anger Ms Shinawatra’s mostly rural supporters, who have called for a major rally tomorrow in Bangkok.
“Today’s verdict is just a bump on the road of democracy, but we will still keep moving on,” said Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the pro-Yingluck Red Shirt protest movement. “Our stance has been clear. If an illegal prime minister steps in, we will fight. If there’s a coup, we will fight.”
It is unclear if Ms Shinawatra’s opponents will achieve other key demands, including creating a reform council overseen by a leader of their choice that would carry out various steps to rid the country of corruption and what they claim is money politics, including alleged vote-buying. Ms Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party remain very popular among the poor, particularly in the north and north-east. But she is despised by Bangkok’s middle and upper class as a puppet of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister now living in exile.
Thailand’s upheaval began in 2006 when he was ousted in a military coup after protests accusing him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Mr Shinawatra’s supporters say the establishment opposes him because their privileges are threatened by his populist programmes. Thailand’s courts have a record of hostile rulings towards his political machine, which is backed by a fortune he made in telecoms. His opponents, including those who have rioted and attacked police, destroyed property and occupied government offices, are often treated leniently by the courts.
Analysts said the decision damaged the judiciary. “The credibility of the justice system has vapourised,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of south-east Asian history at the University of Wisconsin. “The royalist conservatives may celebrate this judicial coup. But the world will mourn over the death of another democracy.”