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The Dark, Sordid History of the Court That Ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister

The Dark, Sordid History of the Court That Ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister

Thailand’s Constitutional Court may have finally done what months of anti-government demonstrations failed to do — unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In a ruling Wednesday, the court ordered Yingluck to step down, finding her guilty of abusing her power by transferring a senior civil servant to a new position in 2011 and freeing up another job for a relative, an accusation she denies. The court also ordered nine cabinet ministers to resign. The remaining members quickly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as interim leader.

The roots of Thailand’s political crisis come down to simple math: Thailand’s opposition Democratic Party does not have the votes to compete against Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, comprised primarily by rural and lower class voters from the north, at the polls. The Democrats, who led the demonstrations against Yingluck, have not won an election in almost 20 years.

In place of free and fair elections, opposition politicians have leaned on elite bureaucratic institutions — the courts, the army, the crown — to maintain their power. These institutions form the backbone of Thailand’s traditional political establishment, whose authority is threatened by Yingluck’s electoral majority.

For Yingluck’s supporters, the ruling represents the latest effort by the opposition to oust the democratically-elected leader by underhanded means. Anti-government demonstrators, comprised primarily of southerners and urban elites, took to the streets in November 2013 in an attempt to unseat Yingluck and have battled the government in the streets for the better part of the last six months. But until now, they have had little success in achieving their goal of removing the Shinawatra family from the Thai political scene.

Few among these institutions have played such an outsized role in the current political crisis as the Constitutional Court. The court, as Dominic J. Nardi, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan, writes, "was not necessarily created with the altruistic goal of protecting fundamental rights. Rather, constitutional court justices serve to enforce the policy preferences of the political elites who appointed them — a sort of ‘insurance policy’ against populism or electoral defeat."

Indeed, the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck is only the latest example of the type of politicized judicial activism that has come to define the bench. The Constitutional Court, established in 1997 as an additional check on Thailand’s various government branches, had a mixed record in its early years. It initially took an aggressive tack in combating official corruption, removing a number of politicians in graft probes during the late 1990s. The court actually exonerated Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, in a corruption case after he came to power in 2001 behind the same coalition of rural, lower-class voters who support his sister.

Yet in the mid-2000s the court became increasingly aligned with Thailand’s traditional political power brokers. In 2006, after opposition politicians boycotted the vote, the court invalidated the electoral victory of then-Prime Minister Thaksin. Later that year, the army seized control of the government in a bloodless coup. Facing corruption charges, Thaksin left Thailand in self-imposed exile.

Thailand’s military leaders established a new Constitutional Tribunal in the wake of their ascension to power. In 2007, the tribunal dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, alleging fraud in the 2006 election.

These decisions were only the beginning of a judicial effort to dismantle Thaksin’s political machine. In 2008, the court removed Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally, because he allegedly accepted payments to be on a cooking show.

High-profile acquittals of leaders of the Democrat Party, the main opponents of the Shinawatra political dynasty, have hardly helped the court’s reputation for issuing one-sided rulings. In 2010, the court dropped electoral fraud charges against then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his ruling Democrat Party.

In November 2013, the court ruled against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have changed the structure of the Senate. As currently structured, one half of the legislators in the 150-member body are appointed by judges and civil servants. The measure would have converted the chamber to a fully elected 200-member institution. The opposition Democrat Party petitioned the court to review the bill on the grounds that it gave too much power to Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, which maintains greater popular support.

After the decision, Supot Kaimook, one of the nine judges of the Constitutional Court, claimed the court was concerned about the rights of the minority. "Thailand’s democratic system allows the majority to set the standard," he wrote. "But once it uses its power arbitrarily and suppresses the minority without listening to reason, this makes the majority lose its legitimacy."

This system, he asserted, could no longer be called "democratic." "It results in the tyranny of the majority," he said.

The court, it seems, can always be counted on to combat tyranny — the kind of tyranny that will strip the Bangkok elite of their power, anyway.