Thai fugitive's winning party faces legal threat

BANGKOK, July 8, 2011 (AFP) - Thailand's defeated Democrats launched a legal bid Friday to ban the victorious party of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, threatening fresh political turmoil.

The Democrat Party asked the Election Commission (EC) to recommend the abolition of Puea Thai, the winner of Sunday's election, on the grounds that disqualified politicians were involved in its campaign.

"We asked EC to recommend to the Constitutional Court to dissolve Puea Thai," Wiratana Kalayasiri, head of the Democrats' legal team, told AFP.

"The accusation is that Puea Thai allowed people subject to five-year political bans to become involved in policy planning, phone-ins and video addresses and also the selection of candidates," he said.

A Democrat member has also lodged a complaint against premier-in-waiting Yingluck Shinawatra -- Thaksin's youngest sister -- accusing her of giving away free noodles during campaigning in an attempt to buy votes.

The legal process is expected to take some time and is not expected to prevent Yingluck from becoming Thailand's first female prime minister.

But any attempt to remove her party from power would be sure to anger Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters, who were behind mass protests in Bangkok last year that turned deadly.

"If this case proceeds it will be enormously damaging for efforts for reconciliation because it will underline the feeling that the Democrats and their allies in the military and the palace and the judiciary simply don't accept election results," said Thailand expert Andrew Walker.

"This is an invitation to the most hardline, radical and violent elements in the Red Shirts to do their stuff. To subvert this result would be an invitation to mayhem," said Walker, a senior fellow at Australian National University.

The Thai judiciary has a record of intervening in politics. Two Thaksin parties have been dissolved by the courts in the past and their top executives, including the controversial former leader, were banned from politics.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

Yingluck, however, and most other Puea Thai lawmakers are not executives, so should avoid a ban themselves and could in theory move to another party.

But Walker said the dissolution case might be just one of several legal steps against her party, including the possible disqualification of Puea Thai candidates that could erode their majority.

Thaksin's party lashed out at the Democrats' move and suggested it would retaliate with legal action of its own.

"The Democrats don't respect the people's decision. More than 16 million voted for Puea Thai," deputy party leader Plodprasob Suraswadi said.

"They're so confident in the judicial process, we'll have to revive our case against the Democrats too," he added.

The Democrats, led by outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, narrowly escaped a ban themselves in late 2010 over allegations of misuse of state funds and an illegal donation.

After two-and-a-half years in power, Abhisit resigned as leader of the establishment-backed Democrats on Monday after his party clinched just 159 seats against Puea Thai's 265.

It was unclear whether Abhisit was involved in the legal complaint. He has been keeping a low profile since his defeat.

Yingluck is yet to be officially appointed by a new parliament but has formed a six-party coalition that will control about three fifths of the lower house seats.

Signs that the powerful military is ready to accept a Puea Thai-led government had raised cautious hopes that the country's various political actors might be ready to put aside their differences.

Yingluck has floated the idea of an amnesty to allow Thaksin to return, which would anger many in the Bangkok-based elite around the palace and army and could prompt protests by the royalist "Yellow Shirt" movement.

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