BANGKOK – The long-anticipated criminal conviction of ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, now in hiding after fleeing overseas last month, promises to once again reset Thailand’s military-dominated politics.
Bangkok’s Supreme Court for Political Office Holders decided today that Yingluck was guilty of negligence in handling her coup-ousted government’s controversial rice price support policy, a boondoggle scheme which resulted in billions of dollars worth of state losses. The court sentenced the ex-leader in absentia to five years in prison, half the maximum sentence allowed under Thai law.
The court will issue another arrest warrant against Yingluck, after an initial warrant was issued when she failed to appear before the court on August 25, when the verdict was originally scheduled to be read.
News reports said less than 100 ‘Red Shirt’ supporters gathered in front of the court, substantially less than the thousands that turned out for previous hearings, including the August 25 original verdict date that Yingluck skipped upon fleeing the country. The small turnout precluded the potential for street level instability, though there is still potential for a shadowy response.
Yingluck has not made any public statement since fleeing Thailand. Her political supporters say she is either in London or Dubai, where her self-exiled, ex-premier elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra is known to maintain luxury residences. Dubai authorities have said they have no records of her arrival in the emirate; United Kingdom officials have been mum.
Before the verdict, coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s regime had pointed to Yingluck’s flight from justice as proof she was guilty as charged, providing new ballast to the junta’s narrative that her camp’s politicians are corrupt and driven more by personal than national motivations. Yingluck plead innocent to the charges.
On August 26, the court handed down harsh decades-long prison sentences to Yingluck’s former commerce minister and his deputy, both of whom have been refused bail. Yingluck had indicated before her conviction she was willing to go to prison on principle, a martyr vow she apparently abandoned closer to the verdict’s reading.
Still, it’s not immediately clear the verdict will accelerate the junta’s long delayed time table for holding new elections and restoring a form of democracy. Yingluck was already disqualified from running for office at new polls based on a court ruling related to an unlawful bureaucratic transfer in the days leading up to the May 2014 coup.
Her Peua Thai party will now likely be led by deputy leader Sudarat Keyuraphan, a less populist, more process-oriented Bangkok politician who insiders say has the backing of party patron ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra but not necessary the party’s rank and file machine politicians. Sudarat has taken a more conciliatory tack towards the junta than many stalwart Peua Thai members.
Under the military’s new constitution, passed in a national referendum in August 2016 and royally endorsed with amendments this April, new polls must be held 150 days after parliamentary passage and royal endorsement of still pending election-related laws on political parties and an appointed Senate.
The military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee and rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly are legally allowed 360 days since the new charter’s promulgation to draft, pass and review the election laws. The monarch is allowed another 90 days to review the laws before either endorsing or rejecting them.
Junta representatives insist the country is headed back to democracy, though the junta’s second-ranking official defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan has recently vacillated in public statements on whether the polls would be held in late 2018 or 2019.
Prayuth has likewise sent mixed signals. While frequently questioning the wisdom of holding new polls that return to power the same corrupt elected politicians he overthrew in a coup, the premier has simultaneously ramped up his grass roots and rural-based activities in recent weeks, in what some analysts have viewed as de facto election campaigning.
While Prayuth is not expected to run for elected office, he could be appointed to the premiership by the military-controlled Senate in a scenario where no single party wins a majority of parliament’s lower house, a likely scenario under new election rules. Army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart is also viewed as a potential appointed premier.
Prayuth’s regime is in the process of ramping up fiscal spending, seen in his Cabinet’s approval yesterday for nearly two trillion baht (US330 billion) worth of state enterprise investments in fiscal 2018, more than thrice the 580 billion allocated this year, in what could be a bid to manufacture a feel-good economic boost to coincide with polls and counter Peua Thai’s reputation for steering fast growth.
Thaksin mostly rural supporters, who delivered him unprecedented electoral victories, believe his only offense was challenging the power of the country’s traditional elite, led by monarchists and the military, and supported by the urban middle class.
They believe his appeal, earned from populist policies benefiting the less well-off rural majority, threatened the traditional ruling class’ privilege.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s response to Yingluck’s actual conviction is still a wildcard. People familiar with Thaksin’s recent thinking say that he still prefers to contest the next polls, despite the military’s assured overarching political role and a likely Senate appointed premier, and intends to field the party again under a Shinawatra family banner. One recent poll showed Thaksin’s popularity still outstripped Prayuth’s rising strongman brand.
Installed to restore stability after years of debilitating street protests, and with a still incomplete delicate royal transition, the junta still has various security-related reasons it could agitate or cite to push back polls. And with Yingluck now a fugitive from justice, no immediate popular groundswell against her conviction, and less international pressure than previously to stage speedy elections, Prayuth will continue to steer the country’s politics as he sees fit and safe.