Thai Constitutional Court Removes Prime Minister Yingluck from Office

  • photo courtesy of Asia Society
    May 8, 2014

    Q1: Why did Thailand’s Constitutional Court order caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down?

    Thailand’s Constitutional Court on May 7 declared Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of abuse of power for her 2011 transfer of then National Security Council secretary-general Thawil Pliensri and removed her from the post of caretaker prime minister. The court found that Yingluck illegally replaced Thawil with then national police chief Wichean Potephosree in order to pave the way for Priewphan Damapong, a relative of the Shinawatra family, to become the police chief.

    Nine of Yingluck’s cabinet members who were involved in Thawil’s transfer were also removed from office, including the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, and justice. The decision also leaves the post of defense minister, which Yingluck held, vacant.

    The government has appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan as the new caretaker prime minister. Niwatthamrong was a former director in Shin Corp., the telecommunications company belonging to Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai Party has denounced the ruling as an unconstitutional part of a wider plot to remove it from power. Yingluck is the third prime minister with links to former prime minister Thaksin that the Constitutional Court has ousted in recent years.

    Q2: What are the implications of the ruling?

    While the removal of Yingluck was not unexpected, it opens the door for more uncertainty by raising tension among different factions in Thai politics. By not disbanding her government entirely, the Constitutional Court has struck a middle ground, since removing the whole cabinet would open an avenue for the appointment of an unelected leader.

    Thailand’s pro-government faction, commonly known as the Red Shirts, described the ruling as a “judicial coup” and has been mobilizing for a mass rally on May 9. Hundreds of government protesters were gathered in northern Bangkok after the court ruling, and many more are expected to arrive in the coming days.

    Anti-government supporters, led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), applauded the ruling but were not thrilled with the appointment of Niwatthamrong, who is a close associate of Thaksin, as acting caretaker prime minister. In response to the ruling, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban called for a “final all-out battle” against the government on May 9 across Bangkok.

    Violence resulting from potential clashes between the pro- and anti-government protesters is possible, and the army has stationed 175 bunkers throughout Bangkok to try to prevent the kind of bloodshed that happened in 2010, when the Red Shirts poured into the capital to protest the government of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

    Q3: What can be expected next in Thailand’s political crisis?

    Shortly before the constitutional court’s decision, Yingluck and the country’s Election Commission had agreed to hold a fresh round of elections on July 20 to select a new government.(The Constitutional Court had nullified the previous elections held on February 2 because voting did not take place at the same time nationwide.) The remaining cabinet members, who said shortly after the court’s ruling that they will push ahead with the general elections, are scheduled to meet with the Election Commission on May 8 to sort out remaining differences.

    However, the opposition Democrat Party said it will boycott the elections in July and continues to call for political reforms, including through constitutional changes, before a new poll can be held. Democrat Party leader Abhisit has proposed a reform plan, which Pheu Thai turned down.

    Meanwhile, Yingluck is subject to another ruling by the National Anti-Corruption Commission on her failed management of the controversial rice-buying scheme. The commission will decide whether to indict Yingluck anytime between May 8 and May 15. She will face an impeachment trial in the Senate if found guilty.

    In the past six months of anti-government protests, the Thai army has more often than not insisted on not taking part in the conflict, and its leaders have said several times they are not interested in staging a military coup. The military previously came under severe international scrutiny, including temporary U.S. sanctions, after it overthrew Thaksin in 2006. Most recently, it has denied rumors that it was in favor of the Democrats’ reform plan. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who last year tried but failed to broker a deal between Yingluck and Suthep, will retire in September and is not seen as interested in taking sides in the current political stalemate.

    Although Yingluck has been ousted from power, there is no endgame to the political conflict. Some have described the lawsuits brought against Yingluck’s government as representative of a more concerted effort by the Thai establishment to rid the country of Thaksin’s influence and the Shinawatra family’s political machine. Neither side of the political spectrum is likely to back down or settle for a compromise.

    Q4: What are the implications for Thailand’s economy and foreign policy?

    Thailand’s central bank in February predicted the country’s economic growth in 2014 would be less than 3 percent. Economic growth will be affected by a sharp downturn in tourist arrivals, particularly around Bangkok, and by the caretaker government’s inability to disperse funds for infrastructure projects. Exports are expected to grow by 4.5 percent. Economists have warned that investor confidence may falter if the current deadlock continues to drag on for a prolonged period. A number of Japanese car manufacturers, which base their regional headquarters in Thailand, have begun to look for alternative locations to expand.

    Until a new government is in place, Thailand will not have official representatives at regional meetings and will not be able to play its regional role as a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an ally of the United States.

    General Nipat Thonglek, who holds the post of defense permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defense, will be the face of the defense portfolio in the coming months. He represented Thailand at the recent meeting hosted by U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel and ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii. Meanwhile, permanent secretary for foreign affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow is expected to represent Thailand at regional meetings with other ASEAN members.

    For further CSIS analysis on this topic, see the following interview from Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies Ernest Bower.

    Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
    Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with CSIS Sumitro Chair.

    Critical Questions
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