BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai judges acquitted the Democrat Party on Wednesday of all charges of breaking election laws that could have seen it disbanded and their leaders banned from politics.
Their ruling on similar charges against the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was due later in the day and could plunge the coup-prone southeast Asian nation further into the political unknown.
“The tribunal throws out the request to disband” the Democrat Party, Judge Nurak Mapraneet said after the Constitutional Tribunal spent four hours summing up the case before announcing the verdict on national television.
Democrat supporters exploded into cheers after their party was acquitted of four charges of election wrongdoing in last year’s poll, later annulled, which Thaksin called to defuse street protests against him.
“The cases to disband the parties have undermined investor confidence for so long. From now on, we must move toward the elections and real democracy,” party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said.
Thai stocks rallied to end at a 5-month high on strong foreign buying. Analysts cited the absence of widely feared major street protests.
But the military chiefs who ousted Thaksin in a bloodless coup last September were still braced for trouble after verdicts likely to upset either Thaksin supporters or enemies, depending on how they panned out.
A Bangkok police spokesman said 1,800 uniformed, riot and plain-clothes police were on the streets around the court with orders to evacuate the judges if the situation turned ugly after the rulings.
The coup leaders also had 13,000 “emergency” police and troops “ready to come out if things escalate,” military spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.
Thaksin, living in exile in London, and other top members of his party could be banned from politics for five years.
Few doubt the generals, who say they staged last September’s coup to prevent violence as a street campaign against him grew, want Thaksin out of politics ahead of a general election Surayud has promised in December.
However, banning the telecommunications billionaire would outrage the millions of people in the countryside and the urban poor who gave him two election landslide victories and still see him as the only politician who really cares about them.
Despite attempts to block Thaksin supporters from entering Bangkok, Sunsern said they had sneaked through checkpoints and were in the capital.
Army-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont also has the power to impose martial law and a curfew, as well as deploy troops on the streets of Bangkok.
“The verdict for Thai Rak Thai should not be critical,” Thammasat University political scientist Somjai Phagapasvivat said, predicting Thaksin’s party was likely to re-form under another banner for elections promised in December if banned.
“The party may be disbanded, but I think some of its key executives will be allowed to stay in politics. I don’t think all of the party’s leaders will be banned,” he said.
Fears of violence were laid out starkly by King Bhumibol Adulyadej when he summoned top judges last week to warn them whatever decisions the Constitutional Tribunal made would upset somebody.
“Whatever the verdict will be, it will bring damage to the country. Whatever direction it will take, it will be erroneous,” he said in a 15-minute speech to the judges.
The words of the monarch, who is genuinely revered, prompted Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat Party to promise restraint.
Additional reporting by Bangkok bureau