Thai court drops legal case against ruling party

Thailand's ruling Democrat Party staved off its possible dissolution and ouster from power Monday when a court dismissed charges that it had misused an official election fund.

The Constitutional Court's ruling is likely to meet widespread criticism that it has applied double standards. Previous court rulings have consistently gone against the Democrats' political opponents.

If it had been found guilty by the court, the party could have been disbanded and about 40 of its executives — including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — banned from politics for five years, forcing the formation of a new government. A guilty verdict could also have brought less severe repercussions that would have allowed its politicians to stay in office under the banner of a new or different party.

The judges ruled 4 to 2 that the case brought by the Election Commission had not followed proper legal procedure and so did not comment on the substance of the case, which accused the Democrats of spending part of a 29 million baht ($907,000) government fund without proper approval during the 2005 election campaign.

"This case has ended, and our party has the duty to continue solving the country's problems," Abhisit, who is also party leader, told reporters.

He acknowledged that the ruling might not be universally welcomed but should be abided.

Critics of Abhisit's government are likely to see the decision as further evidence that the legal system tilts in favor of the Democrats and against its rivals. The country has been polarized since 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup.

The critics believe the courts and the Democrats are pillars of the Thai establishment, which felt its power threatened by Thaksin's huge popularity with Thailand's poor and working classes. The divisions laid open by the coup have since led to deadly violence.

Demonstrations by protesters who believe Abhisit's party came to power illegitimately — the so-called Red Shirt supporters of Thaksin — and a subsequent crackdown triggered bloodshed in the streets of Bangkok this spring with about 90 people killed and more than 1,400 wounded.

After his ouster, Thaksin faced a slew of corruption charges, and fled the country ahead of his conviction for violating a conflict of interest law, for which he was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison.

Abhisit's two predecessors — both Thaksin allies — were removed from office by court decisions. And Thaksin's opponents, protesters known as the Yellow Shirts, have yet to be prosecuted for occupying the prime minister's office for three months and taking over Bangkok's two airports for a week in 2008.

The Democrats still face another case with the same potential penalties. The case, involving an allegedly illegal campaign donation of 258 million baht ($8.1 million), is expected to be heard next year.