BANGKOK - Unofficial results of Thailand's weekend Senate election suggest a pro-government majority, a rare piece of good news for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is battling negligence charges brought by the national anti-graft commission.
Yingluck has been charged with dereliction of duty for her role in overseeing a disastrous state rice-buying scheme that has run up huge losses. Should the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) forward the case to the Senate for possible impeachment, she could be removed from office.
That would require the votes of three-fifths of the senators. Thailand's 150-seat Senate is made up of 77 elected senators. The other 73 are appointed and are largely seen as opponents of the government.
Sunday's election results have likely put a spanner in the works for protesters who have been rallying for months in a bid to oust Yingluck and rid the country of the influence of her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Preliminary results released by the Election Commission on Monday show winning candidates in the north and northeast, Thaksin strongholds, are largely linked to the ruling Puea Thai Party and Thaksin's now-defunct Thai Rak Thai party.
"Definitely the names we're seeing on the list of winners are mostly pro-government, with ties to the ruling party and coalition party," Paiboon Nititawan, an appointed senator who has sided with anti-government protesters in the past. "It is not possible that the Senate will get the three-fifths of votes needed to remove the prime minister." An early analysis by the Nation Multimedia Group shows the government and coalition partners winning more than 50 per cent of the 77 contested seats.
While the Senate is officially non-partisan, the majority of the 77 elected seats were likely decided on the basis of endorsements from powerful, party-affiliated institutions.
Elected senators could be endorsed within seven days, Norarat Pimsen, secretary general of the Senate, told Reuters, and new senators could report for duty by April 18.
It remains unclear when the NACC will decide whether to forward Yingluck's case to the Senate, dragging out weeks of uncertainty and leaving Yingluck at the helm of a caretaker government with limited powers.
And there is a further legal challenge. A group of 27 senators has petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule that her removal of National Security Chief Thawil Pliensree in 2011 violated the constitution. A court ruling reinstated him last week.
The Constitutional Court will decide on Wednesday whether to accept the case. "The anti-government side are plotting different ways to remove the government," said political analyst Kan Yuenyong at Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank. "They will go at it from every angle they can, throwing legal challenges at the prime minister until one sticks." Yingluck defended herself on Monday against the negligence charges and asked for time to submit evidence in her defence. The commission will decide on Tuesday whether to extend the deadline.
Protesters first took to the streets in November to oppose a controversial amnesty bill that critics said would have allowed for Thaksin's return. The bill was eventually rejected by the Senate but protests continued and new demands emerged.
The protests are the latest round of an eight-year political battle that broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and conservative establishment against Yingluck and Thaksin's supporters in the north and northeast.
Twenty-three people have died in politically related violence since late November.
The protests have now shifted from the streets to a base camp in a Bangkok park as Yingluck's "red shirt" supporters hatch plans to thwart any move to dismiss her.