BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister was ordered to step down Wednesday along with part of her Cabinet after the Constitutional Court found her guilty in an abuse of power case, pushing the country deeper into political turmoil.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was charged with abusing her authority by transferring a senior civil servant in 2011 to another position. The court ruled that the transfer was carried out to benefit her politically powerful family and, therefore, violated the constitution—an accusation she has denied.
“Transferring government officials must be done in accordance with moral principle,” the court said in its ruling, read aloud on live television for almost 90 minutes. “Transferring with a hidden agenda is not acceptable.”
“The Constitutional Court has ruled unanimously that [Yingluck] has used her status as the prime minister to intervene for her own and others’ benefits to [transfer] a government official,” which violated Article 268 of the Constitution, and ended her rule as prime minister, the court said in its verdict.
It was not immediately clear who would become the new acting prime minister. The ruling also forced out nine Cabinet members who the court said were complicit in the transfer of National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri.
The judgment marks the latest dramatic twist in Thailand’s long-running political crisis. It was a victory for Yingluck’s opponents, mostly from the urban elite and those in the south, who for the past six months have been engaged in vociferous and sometimes violent street protests demanding she step down to make way for an interim unelected leader.
But it does little to resolve Thailand’s political crisis as it leaves the country in limbo and primed for more violence.
The ruling casts doubt on whether new elections planned for July will take place, which would anger Yingluck’s mostly rural supporters who have called for a major rally Saturday in Bangkok. Her ouster will doubtless swell those numbers, and some fear it could lead to more violence. Since November, more than 20 have been killed and hundreds injured in sporadic gun-battles, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks.
It also remains far from clear whether her opponents will be able to achieve other key demands, including creating a reform council overseen by a leader of their choice that will carry out various steps to rid the country of corruption and what they claim is money politics, including alleged vote-buying.
Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, and her Pheu Thai party swept to power in mid-2011 elections—and remain very popular among the country’s poor majority, particularly in the north and northeast. But she is despised by Bangkok’s middle and upper class.
The campaign against Yingluck, 46, has been the latest chapter in Thailand’s political upheaval that began when her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a polarizing figure who was ousted by a 2006 military coup after protests accusing him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Since then, Thaksin’s supporters and opponents have engaged in a power struggle that has occasionally turned bloody.
Thaksin’s supporters say the Thai establishment opposes him because their position of privilege has been threatened by his electoral popularity, cemented by populist programs that benefited the less well-off in the vote-strong countryside.
Thailand’s courts, like its military, are seen as bastions of anti-Thaksin conservatism, and have a record of hostile rulings toward the Shinawatra political machine, which is fueled by a fortune Thaksin made in the telecommunications sector. Thaksin’s opponents, including those who have rioted and attacked police, destroyed public property and occupied government offices, have usually been treated leniently by the courts.
The Constitutional Court has historically been unsympathetic to Thaksin’s allies.
In 2007, the court made a landmark ruling dissolving Thaksin’s original Thai Rak Thai party for fraud in a 2006 election, and banned its executives from politics for five years. Thaksin went into self-imposed exile in 2008 to escape a two-year jail sentence for conflict of interest while prime minister.
Thaksin’s allies in late 2007 handily won the first post-coup election, but the Constitutional Court in 2008 kicked out two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers.
A coalition government then cobbled together by the opposition Democrat Party had to use the army to put down pro-Thaksin demonstrations in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead in street battles, but Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party won a sweeping majority in a mid-2011 general election.
Yingluck’s fortunes plunged when her party’s lawmakers late last year used shady legislative tactics to try to ram through a law that would have given an amnesty to political offenders of the previous eight years, including Thaksin. The move reignited mass demonstrations against Thaksin and his political machine and eventual street fighting by anti-government toughs.
Seeking to ease the pressure, Yingluck in December dissolved the lower House and called elections for Feb. 2. But her opponents on the street disrupted the polls, which in turn were invalidated by the courts. More than 20 people have died in the latest political violence.
Yingluck’s foes also have been seeking to topple her in the courts, in what her supporters describe as an attempt at a “judicial coup.” It was anti-government senators who lodged the case over the transfer of National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri, a move previously ruled unlawful by another court.