BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's beleaguered government, plagued by street protests over an ill-advised attempt to help ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faces a fresh challenge Wednesday when a court rules on its attempt to amend the constitution.
Whether the Constitutional Court's action amounts to a minor skirmish or a major battle in the long-running war between supporters and opponents of Thaksin — who fled into exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption — depends on the verdict and how the political parties react to it.
A worst-case scenario could end up with a court ruling leading to the disbanding of the pro-Thaksin ruling party and the dissolution of Parliament. More worrying is that such a ruling could anger Thaksin's supporters and embolden his opponents, setting the stage for the kind of violent conflict that has marred the country's politics in the not-too-distant past.
The courts, deeply conservative and royalist, played a vanguard role in the battles against Thaksin even before he was deposed by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the monarchy. Court rulings in 2006 encouraged Thaksin's opponents before he was ousted and in 2008 forced two pro-Thaksin prime ministers out of office.
Rangsit University political scientist Thamrongsak Petchlertanan said that with Thaksin's side having an overwhelming electoral mandate, the court was "the last fortress of the establishment and the authoritarians."
"This is a war between the legislative branch and the judicial branch," Thamrongsak said.
The proposed amendment would require all senators to be elected, rather than split their seats between elected and appointed members. The change was proposed and passed by the ruling Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, which has an absolute majority in the lower house. Appointed senators generally share the conservative outlook of senior judges, and some are leading lights of the anti-Thaksin movement.
Several objections were filed with the court. The substantive complaints argue that adopting the amendment violates the constitution because it involves support for overthrowing the system of government. A court ruling supporting that could throw out Thaksin-allied lawmakers who signed off on the change and disband their party.
But Thaksin's supporters, having learned from previous setbacks in the courts, can be assumed to have made arrangements for the snap establishment of a replacement party.
Thailand's 1997 constitution called for all senators to be directly elected, and received strong support from almost every segment of society. But conservative elements in Thai society found the democratic elements of the 1997 charter too democratic for their liking, opening the way for what they viewed as a "parliamentary dictatorship" that the billionaire Thaksin was able to buy into being.
After the coup abrogated the 1997 charter, Thaksin's critics in 2007 drafted a new constitution, splitting the Senate into an elected and appointed membership. It was adopted by a national referendum after being presented to the public on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
When Thaksin's allies won a late-2007 election, the battle for power turned ugly, with Thaksin's opponents, the so-called Yellow Shirts, going so far as to occupy the prime minister's offices for three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week.
Thaksin's supporters — the Red Shirts — showed their muscle in 2010 when they tried to force an anti-Thaksin government to step down. Their occupation of central Bangkok ended with a violent military crackdown that left more than 90 people dead.
Yingluck swept to power in a 2011 general election and some semblance of peace was restored.
But the schism over Thaksin remains. Last month, his backers in Parliament tried some legislative sleight of hand to grant him amnesty, but a public uproar forced Yingluck's government to retreat.