THAI Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's ruling Democrat Party survived a controversial dissolution case yesterday, helping him avoid becoming the third leader forced out of office in the last three years.
Six judges from the Constitutional Court voted 4-to-2 in favour of acquitting the party from charges that it had misused a 29 million baht (S$1.3 million) political campaign fund during the April 2005 general elections.
The verdict had an impact as the financial markets closed on Monday, with the benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand index rising 1.74 per cent to 1,009.00 and the baht erasing its earlier losses to end at 30.18 against the dollar. Reading out the hour-long verdict that was broadcast 'live' on national television, judge Udomsak Nitimontree said that the Election Commission's (EC) petition to dissolve the kingdom's oldest political party was 'unlawful' as it had passed a 15-day deadline to file the complaint to the court.
If found guilty, the party could have been disbanded, resulting in over 30 of its senior officials - including Mr Abhisit himself - banned from politics for five years. This would have forced a new government to be formed.
The EC had earlier accused the party of spending part of the funds without following the proper approval procedures. Mr Abhisit - who took office on Dec 17, 2008 - was the party's deputy leader at the time of the alleged offence.
Last Sunday, the prime minister had said that he was ready to abide by the court's final decision and step down if necessary.
There is now a fear that the kingdom's opposition will react strongly to the court's verdict, given that two other political parties - both allied to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they support - were forced by the court to disband in 2008.
The leaders of those two parties were the late Samak Sundaravej, who was found guilty of accepting payments for hosting TV cooking shows while in power, and Somchai Wongsawat, who had to step down because of election fraud.
The opposition Red Shirts - who have insisted the 47-year-old Mr Abhisit step down and call for early elections, believing that he came to power illegitimately - held mass demonstrations in Bangkok in April and May this year. The violent protests caused some 95 deaths and injured over 1,400 people.
With his job now secure for the time being, the focus now turns to Mr Abhisit, who is under pressure to call for early elections despite his term only expiring in December 2011. He has maintained that he would dissolve Parliament only if the country was at peace.
It is now widely expected that the country could go to the polls by April, with the Democrats up against the main opposition party, Puea Thai, which is heavily backed by Thaksin.
Meanwhile, the Democrat Party is scheduled to appear in court again next year as it faces another case involving an alleged undeclared 258 million baht donation from a petrochemical conglomerate.