Thailand’s army chief pledged a swift restoration of democracy when he sent tanks into Bangkok to drive Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister, from power last September.
But while the current military-installed government insists it is on course to transfer power to a freshly elected government around the New Year, Thais are now anxiously waiting to see whether any of their top politicians will be allowed to participate in the new order.
That could become clearer on Wednesday, when a military-created Constitutional Tribunal delivers its verdict on whether the two largest political parties – Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party and the 61-year-old Democrat party – committed fraud during bizarre elections last year.
If found guilty, the two parties – which accounted for 90 per cent of the members of the last parliament – stand to be dissolved. More drastically, their combined 160 party executives could be banned from elections for five years, clearing the way for figures amenable to the military to claim power.
While such sweeping action would be unprecedented in Thailand’s coup-plagued history, military leaders are thought to see such a ban as the best insurance against a newly elected government seeking retribution for the ousting of Mr Thaksin, now living in exile.
“The generals clearly want a political class that they feel they can dominate,” said Korn Chatikavanij, deputy leader of the Democrat party. “They have made it clear they would like to weaken both, if not make them disappear altogether.”
A Bangkok-based business analyst said the elimination of so many veteran politicians would leave “an open field for [the coup-makers] and that is precisely what they want . . . You go easy on these guys, and you could end up with elections that put ex-Thai Rak Thai into power.”
Yet dissolving the party founded by Mr Thaksin, who is still popular among the rural poor, and barring its leaders from politics also poses unpredictable risks.
While the military is preparing to control any post-verdict protests, analysts warn that Thaksin supporters, egged on by disgruntled politicians, could also vent their anger by rejecting the new military-sponsored constitution in a planned national referendum. Analysts say the ban would also hit some high-profile former Thai Rak Thai leaders, who are otherwise willing to co-operate with military figures in a future administration.
“It’s a dead-end road,” Suchit Boonbongkarn, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist, said. “It would have very serious negative consequences.”
Reflecting the gravity of the case, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered monarch, made a rare public comment, urging the judges to make a clear legal decision, and warning: “Either way the verdict goes, it will be bad for the country.”
The Thai Rak Thai and Democrat parties stand accused of misconduct in the April 2006 elections, held after Mr Thaksin dissolved parliament amid mass protests against his family’s $1.9bn tax-free sale of their 49 per cent stake in Thailand’s largest telecommunications company.
The charges were already pending in the Constitutional Court when the army seized power and abolished the constitution. Three days later, the coup-makers reinstated the relevant political party laws and created a new Constitutional Tribunal to hear the case.
The military also stiffened the potential punishment. The original law said leaders of a party dissolved for electoral fraud would be barred from executive positions in any other party for five years.
But a post-coup military edict said such politicians would also be barred from contesting elections for five years. If the tribunal finds the parties guilty, it must also decide on the punishment.
But Chaturon Chaisang, the acting Thai Rak Thai leader, argues the tribunal has “no legitimacy” to abolish parties for violations of a constitution already abolished by the military.
“It will be difficult for those in power to explain this to people,” he said. “What we did is like breaking a window of a house, but it is being prosecuted by people who burned down the whole house.”
He also said Thai Rak Thai would not simply fade away, irrespective of the tribunal’s decision.
“We will continue our struggle, via the parliamentary system, by peaceful means,” he said.
“We will demand the right of people to register a new party.
“The popularity of this party is even higher than before the coup. People want this party to survive and win the next election.”