On Tuesday, 308 Thai MPs, mainly from the ruling Pheu Thai party, were indicted for attempting to alter the composition of the nation’s upper house of parliament. Critics say the move is the latest elite machination designed to oust embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) charged lawmakers who voted in favor of a government proposal to make the Senate a fully elected body with having acted illegally. The MPs face being suspended and even permanently banned from holding public office if found guilty.
While Yingluck herself was not included on the indictment, the decision heaps pressure on the 46-year-old Premier, and comes after the Constitutional Court ruled on Nov. 20 that attempts to reform the chamber were illegal. (A cabal of military generals determined the current half-appointed, half-elected composition following a putsch.)
“Just as the Constitutional Court verdict was politically motivated, the NACC’s is too, since it was pressed by the opposition, and this looks like another cog in the wheel of a bigger machine set in motion to topple the current government somehow,” Saksith Saiyasombut, a prominent Thai political blogger and commentator, tells TIME. The NACC has provided no reason for its decision.
Antigovernment protesters, numbering around 200,000 at their peak, have besieged Bangkok in recent weeks to demand the removal of Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party, which they say is controlled by her notorious brother Thaksin Shinawatra from self-imposed exile in Dubai. The billionaire telecom mogul is a divisive figure who was convicted of corruption in absentia following his ousting in a military coup in 2006 and faces two years’ imprisonment if he returns to the country. (The current protests were first sparked by a now shelved amnesty bill that would have facilitated his return.)
Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and around 400 wounded in ongoing street violence. In response, Yingluck dissolved parliament and call a snap election for Feb. 2 in order to reassert her mandate. However, the protesters, led by former opposition lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, are unsatisfied. They are now demanding the establishment of an unelected “people’s council” to replace the elected government until unspecified reforms are enacted.
Thaksin-based parties have won every election since 2001 and maintain a power base in the populous, rice-farming northeast of the country. The demonstrators, by contrast, generally back the ironically named Democrat Party, which has not won a popular vote since 1992, and is supported by Bangkok elites and middle-class voters in southern provinces. The protesters want to rid the country of Thaksin’s influence, which they claim is due to vote buying in uneducated rural communities, a charge dismissed by academics.
The looming ballot had already been thrown into doubt by a Democrat Party boycott and fierce protests preventing the registration of candidates in six southern provinces. But the latest NACC ruling adds fresh challenges, as article 272 of the Thai constitution says an MP under indictment cannot “perform his or her duties until the Senate has passed its resolution” on the matter in question.
This may take several months, and as most of the 308 MPs now under investigation have already been nominated for re-election, they could feasibly be unable to take their seats, with the party unable to propose alternative candidates. “It’s all in the matter of interpretation, but the people who interpret the law are the judiciary, which is all anti-Thaksin,” says Paul Chambers, research director of political science at Chiang Mai University. “It’s a stacked court.”
Ominously for Yingluck, this is far from the end of her legal woes. The Constitutional Court is also due this week to rule on whether a proposed amendment to article 190, which would have allowed the PM to sign foreign economic deals without legislative approval, was unconstitutional. If so, the NACC could similarly indict every lawmaker who voted in favor of the amendment, further plunging the ruling party into a judicial quagmire. In addition, Yingluck also faces malfeasance charges relating to controversial rice-pledging scheme and botched attempts to handle catastrophic floods in 2011. “There’s this whole gauntlet of cases that Pheu Thai has to go through,” says Chambers, describing a “juristocracy of anti-Thaksinistas that are heading off the election.”
Protesters have vowed to shut down Bangkok on Jan. 13 by blocking key intersections. Some 20,000 police, along with troops, will be deployed across the city to secure government buildings and prevent bloodshed. “We’re concerned about the likelihood of violence … especially third parties trying to instigate violence,” National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters. Amid turmoil on the streets and in the courtroom, the one place Yingluck may have found some solace was at the ballot box. However, it’s looking increasingly doubtful that day will ever come.