Thai court proceeds with legal challenge that could oust PM

Thailand’s Constitutional Court will resume deliberations next week on a high-profile case that seeks the removal of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin from power over allegations of ethical violations. 

The court will meet again on June 18 to consider the case against Srettha and called for lists of witnesses and evidence to be submitted by the prime minister as well as a group of 40 senators who had filed the legal challenge, it said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Srettha was accused by the senators of a “serious violation of ethical standards” under the constitution for appointing Pichit Chuenban, a former lawyer for the influential Shinawatra family, to his cabinet in April. Pichit was not qualified for the job after being sentenced to six months in jail in 2008 for attempting to bribe court officials while representing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to the senators. 

The nine-member court will also weigh another high-profile petition by the Election Commission that seeks the dissolution of Move Forward, Thailand’s biggest opposition party, according to the statement. The commission was asked to submit its list of witnesses and evidence for that petition by Monday. 

The multiple legal challenges are among a number of events shaking up Thai politics. Also set for June 18 is the official indictment against Thaksin in a royal defamation case, an allegation that puts the head of the dynasty that controls the country’s ruling Pheu Thai party at renewed risk of jail time.  

Both Srettha and Thaksin have rejected the accusations against them. Move Forward has said it plans to “fight tooth and nail” against the dissolution threat, saying its loss would amount to an attack on democracy.

While the outcomes in these cases aren’t clear, the political tumult could result in Srettha’s ouster and a resumption of street protests by supporters of the Move Forward party. They also pose fresh challenges to the coalition government that was cobbled together with a group of pro-royalist parties after a messy general election last year. 

This is all happening against a backdrop of stock-market losses, baht weakness and capital outflows. Rattled by signs of political turmoil, foreign investors have pulled more than $3 billion from the local markets this year, sending Thailand’s benchmark index to a four-year low and making it the worst-performer of all global bourses tracked by Bloomberg in the past year. 

Although Pichit resigned from the cabinet last month, saying he wanted to save Srettha from any legal troubles, that didn’t stop the court from probing the accusation against the prime minister. Srettha has said he was confident he could weather the court scrutiny, adding that his decision to appoint a former Shinawatra family lawyer with a prison history as minister followed the law. 

The cases against Srettha and Thaksin are seen as warning shots from Thailand’s pro-royalist establishment resenting the duo’s moves to tighten their grip over the country. If the Constitutional Court finds Srettha guilty of an ethical breach as alleged, it’s likely to set off a race to select a new prime minister. –BLOOMBERG