BANGKOK - Thailand's Constitutional Court Wednesday dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine ministers for abuse of power, leaving the government clinging to power but the nation still locked in a political crisis.
The cabinet swiftly appointed a deputy premier - Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan - as Yingluck's replacement as the ruling party struggled to regain its footing after the judicial blow.
The court, which has played a key role in deposing Shinawatra-linked governments in recent turbulent years, ruled unanimously that Yingluck acted illegally by transferring a top security official in 2011.
"Therefore her prime minister status has ended... Yingluck can no longer stay in her position acting as caretaker prime minister," presiding judge Charoon Intachan said in a televised ruling.
Nine cabinet ministers who endorsed the decision to transfer Thawil Pliensri were also stripped of their status.
But fears that the court ruling would wipe out the entire cabinet proved unfounded.
Niwattumrong, who is also commerce minister, was quickly promoted to the role of caretaker premier, said Phongthep Thepkanjana, another deputy prime minister.
Ruling party officials vowed to press ahead with a planned July 20 election to establish a new government. That poll date has yet to be endorsed by a royal decree.
While short of a knockout blow to the government, the court ruling does nothing to ease Thailand's prolonged political uncertainty.
Anti-government protesters are still on Bangkok's streets and the promotion of a Shinawatra-loyalist may make Yingluck's dismissal a hollow victory.
"Red Shirt" supporters also threaten to rally to defend the government and press for elections, raising fears of clashes. They will mass on Saturday in a Bangkok suburb.
Jubilant anti-government demonstrators blew whistles outside the court to mark Yingluck's removal - a key demand of their movement, which is seeking to curb the influence of Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin lives overseas to avoid jail for corruption convictions, but is accused of running the country by proxy through his sister.
"I am happy even though the whole cabinet has not been removed. People who do not respect the law should be thrown out," protester Linjong Thummathorn told AFP.
The kingdom has been bedevilled by a bitter political schism since 2006 when an army coup deposed former telecoms magnate Thaksin as prime minister.
He is reviled by the Bangkok elite, middle class and royalist southerners who say he has sponsored nepotism and widespread corruption and who perceive him as a threat to the monarchy.
But he is loved in the poorer north and northeastern regions and among the urban working class for recognising their burgeoning political and economic aspirations.