Two corruption cases haunt Thai leader

Political party may fade away

IN THEIR FACE: Red Shirt protesters are demanding a vote as a way to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but two corruption cases could do the work for them. (Associated Press)IN THEIR FACE: Red Shirt protesters are demanding a vote as a way to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but two corruption cases could do the work for them. (Associated Press)
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BANGKOK | Two corruption cases threaten to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolve his political party and hobble the bickering coalition that administers Thailand’s military-backed government.

Prosecutors in the office of the attorney general have presented charges to the Constitutional Court accusing Mr. Abhisit’s Democrat Party of receiving illegal donations worth more than $8 million from a major cement petrochemical company, TPI Polene, in 2005.

In a separate case, prosecutors accuse the Democrat Party of misusing a $900,000 grant in 2005 from the Election Commission’s political development fund.

If the Constitutional Court returns a guilty verdict in either case, the party could be disbanded and its leaders — including Mr. Abhisit — could be ousted and banned from holding public office for five years.

“We will respect and follow the decision of the court,” the soft-spoken prime minister said.

However, Mr. Abhisit and Democrat Party leaders reportedly are looking for a loophole that would allow them, if convicted, to remain in power under the guise of a new political party.

The Political Party Act of 1998 calls for the liquidation of political organizations found guilty of corruption, including accepting illegal donations and misusing public funds. In 2007, the punishment was expanded to include banning top party officials from holding public office for five years.

Democrat Party officials are expected to argue that any violations they may have committed in 2005 should not be subject to the increased punishments, which came into effect two years later.

If the party is convicted and dissolved under the 1998 version of the act, Mr. Abhisit and his top executives could jump to a new political party to try to stay in power. Parliamentarians then could make deals to unite the coalition behind the new party and even keep Mr. Abhisit as prime minister.

The Constitutional Court, however, has ruled twice that the act’s 2007 version is valid when applied retroactively, and has dissolved five political parties and banned their leaders from holding office. The court’s decision is final and cannot be appealed.

Conviction under the 2007 version would create a vacuum at the top of Thailand’s squabbling political pyramid. The toppled politicians could try to staff a new party headed by unblemished Democrat Party officials, one of whom could be tapped to fill the prime minister post.

A new party, named Thai Khem Khaeng (Strong Thailand), was registered on June 4, prompting speculation in the Thai media that the Democrat Party was behind the move.

Details about the new party are murky, and Democrat Party politicians have tried to tamp down speculation that they supported its registration in response to the corruption trials.

However, there are some facts that suggest the Democrat Party’s influence:

• The new party’s name apparently is inspired by Mr. Abhisit’s $44 billion “Thai Khem Khaeng 2012” economic stimulus program, which he announced in 2009 to support Thailand’s economic recovery and make the country more competitive within three years.

• The new party has headquarters in the Hat Yai district of southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, which is a traditional Democrat Party stronghold.

• The Hat Yai district is in the constituency of a Democrat Party member of parliament, Wirat Kalayasiri, who is on the legal team defending the Democrats in the corruption cases.

• The new party’s registered leader is Manas Panich, who runs a construction company in Hat Yai and is an ally of the Democrat Party.

“In the future, should their [Democrat] Party be disbanded, I do not think it would be unusual if the Democrats want to move to my party,” Mr. Manas said on July 13.

“My party is now seeking members, and if we had a connection with the Democrats, we would not have to worry about looking for more members.”

Yet some of the new party’s “members convened meetings a few times, with no Democrat figures attending,” the English-language Nation newspaper said, echoing other sketchy reports about its backing.

“Another political party, suspected to be a substitution for the Democrat Party in case it is dissolved, is called Dharma Thipat [Buddhism’s Guardians], which was registered with the Election Commission in January 2009, and its head office is located in Bangkok,” the Nation said.

The Strong Thailand party’s platform is expected to trumpet the wisdom of Mr. Abhisit’s stimulus program, in which funds were aimed toward tens of thousands of projects throughout the country, including public transportation, drinking and irrigation water, electric and natural gas power plants, social services and other infrastructure.

Economists are debating how much money should be borrowed to pay for the planned projects and the best way to broaden Thailand’s economy beyond its strong reliance on exports.

Mr. Abhisit’s term as prime minister expires at the end of 2011, when nationwide elections would be held if snap votes are not called sooner.

The Constitutional Court has scheduled an initial hearing Aug. 9 on the misuse of funds charges.

A separate trial on the illegal donations charges is expected to begin a few weeks later.

Prosecutors reportedly have demanded the banning of about 40 Democrat Party executives for five years because they held power in 2004 and 2005, when the illegal donations allegedly were made.

Mr. Abhisit, 46, was a Democrat Party executive at that time — starting as deputy party leader in 2004. He became the party’s leader in March 2005, succeeding Banyat Bantadtan, who presided during both alleged violations.

“These dissolution cases have already shaken public confidence in the country’s oldest political party,” the Thai Rath newspaper said of the Democrat Party on July 18. “With eroding public confidence, the coalition government finds it hard to maintain political stability.”

Government corruption torments this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation and is frequently exposed in front-page scandals that occasionally come to trial, with mixed results.

“Taking action against corrupt state agencies is a problem, when the private sector is reluctant to provide confirmation of the kickback demand,” Mr. Abhisit said July 16, responding to separate complaints by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade about government officials demanding bribes from private companies.

“The private sector appears submissive and tolerant of the acts, rather than risking putting itself at odds with state agencies by pointing the finger at them,” the prime minister said.

The 2007 Political Act was created by a coup-installed junta, and initially used to punish former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in September 2006 in a bloodless military putsch.

Mr. Thaksin argued against the law being used retroactively, but the Constitutional Court disagreed. In 2007, the court disbanded his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party and barred Mr. Thaksin and 110 of his party’s politicians from office for five years.

In 2008, the Constitutional Court ousted Mr. Thaksin’s ally, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, for a conflict of interest: He was simultaneously illegally “employed” — hosting a TV cooking show.

In a separate 2008 case, the court disbanded the People Power Party, which had been led by Mr. Samak and taken over by another Thaksin ally, Somchai Wongsawat, who became prime minister when Mr. Samak fell.

The court also dissolved two smaller coalition parties for electoral fraud committed in a December 2007 election, and banned 109 politicians for five years, including Mr. Somchai, resulting in yet another government’s collapse.

That allowed Mr. Abhisit and his Democrat Party to convince members of parliament that they should form a coalition with him as prime minister.

Though he had been elected to parliament, Mr. Abhisit never won a nationwide election, prompting pro-democracy Red Shirt protesters to demand a vote because they think Mr. Thaksin and his allies remain Thailand’s most popular politicians.

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