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March 22, 2019

Judgment day as Thai court to rule on key Shinawatra-linked party

Judgment day as Thai court to rule on key Shinawatra-linked party
'Policemen stand guard outside the Constitutional Court in Bangkok on Thursday ahead of a court ruling on the Thai Raksa Chart party' - By: AFP Lillian SUWANRUMPHA

A Thai party which is a crucial cog in the election strategy of the Shinawatra political clan braced Thursday for a ruling which could see it dissolved over an ill-starred bid to front a princess as candidate for premier.

Thai Raksa Chart, which is tied to ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, proposed Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate if its bloc emerged with a lower house majority after the March 24 election.

It was an unprecedented move in a constitutional monarchy where royals are officially above the political fray, and prompted a rare public rebuke by her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who issued a royal command declaring the party's move "inappropriate".

Legal moves then followed.

Solemn party executives led by chief Preechapol Pongpanich -- and including two Shinawatra family members -- arrived at the Constitutional Court on Thursday afternoon for the crunch ruling.

The nine-member bench is set to decide whether to dissolve the party on allegations it acted in a manner "hostile to the constitutional monarchy" by proposing the princess' name.

The court has disbanded two parties linked to the Shinawatra dynasty -- and toppled two of its prime ministers -- in the last 13 years of political turmoil since Thaksin was booted from office by a coup in 2006.

The intervening years have seen short-lived civilian governments, bloody street protests and another coup -- against Thaksin's sister Yingluck in 2014 -- that brought the current junta to power.

Police ringed the court, as the zone was designated "a control area", Pakphong Phongpetra, deputy commissioner of Bangkok's police, told AFP.

A smattering of die-hard supporters gathered at near the court.

"I like the party because they are democracy fighters," said 64-year-old Rung, giving only one name.

Dissolution will deal a major blow to the Shinawatra's electoral plans for March 24.

Thai Raksa Chart was established to back up the Shinawatra's main political vehicle Pheu Thai, which won 2011 elections with a landslide.

That was the last time Thais voted in a general election.

Pheu Thais' electoral dominance has been cast into doubt by a new system crafted by the junta specifically to limit the number of seats it can win.

Shinawatra-linked parties have won every Thai election since 2001, powered by votes from the poor but populous north and northeast.

The court ruling looks like "deja vu", said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.

"If it (dissolution) happens again it ... would spell a tactical electoral challenge for the Thaksin camp," Thitinan told AFP, adding a reprieve for the party will give "momentum" to the Shinawatra campaign.

With 18 days to go to the polls, tensions are rising.

The country is deeply divided between those who loathe the military and fear its return to office after elections, and the anti-Thaksin camp.

Thai Raksa Chart campaign chairman Nattawut Saikuar took to Facebook to implore supporters to stay away from the court "for the sake of convenience and order".

The princess at the centre of the drama is currently in Berlin promoting tourism to Thailand's northeast.

"Today, I'd like to continue to work for Thailand," she said in an Instragram post Wednesday, hashtagged "#Doittogether".

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