Thailand’s constitutional tribunal has disbanded the Thai Rak Thai party and banned its leader, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and 111 other members from contesting elections for five years. The move transforms Thailand’s political map, and raises questions about the military government’s commitment to democracy.
The Thai military took power in Bangkok last year in a bloodless coup. Mr. Thaksin was accused of attempts to undermine democracy and of financial irregularities. No charges have been verified, although family members have been investigated for tax evasion. The real concern was his populism and the disdain he showed for the military and the established political order.
The constitutional court, whose members were appointed by the new military government, ruled last week that Thai Rak Thai and its leadership broke the law during the April 2006 election. Thai law requires different margins of victory for elections, depending on whether a seat is contested; if a candidate runs unopposed, he or she must win a larger share of the vote. The opposition Democrats boycotted the ballot, making it harder for Thai Rak Thai candidates to get enough votes to win and, hence, get a quorum for the legislature. To get around that, Thai Rak Thai paid smaller parties to put up candidates, thus lowering the number of votes needed to win and ensuring that the government maintained its majority.
The court ruled those maneuvers illegal and banned the party, a decision that effectively eliminates opposition to the current government’s agenda. Mr. Thaksin’s policies may have alienated the political establishment in Thailand, but he enjoyed substantial support in the countryside and among the poor. Thai Rak Thai won two elections by landslides. The constitutional court decision disenfranchises those voters, undercuts Thai democracy and raises real doubts about the political system that will be left when, and if, the military hands over power. There are less harsh punishments that would be equally just: Friends of Thai democracy should press the government to moderate the ruling and restore real choice to that country’s politics.
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