Thai PM urges calm ahead of key court ruling

BANGKOK, Thailand - Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra called for calm Tuesday before a Constitutional Court ruling that could force the dissolution of her party and inflame the country's bitter divisions.

Yingluck insisted she would not step down ahead of the court ruling, the latest challenge to her embattled government which has faced nearly three weeks of rallies sparked by an amnesty bill which could have allowed the return of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

"I don't want people to be emotional and clash with each other," the Thai leader, who is Thaksin's sister, said Tuesday, urging pro-and anti-government groups to wait for the court's findings.

The court is set to rule Wednesday on whether efforts by Yingluck's government to alter the constitution - which was drawn up under the military junta that deposed Thaksin - are legal.

The proposed changes would make the senate, parliament's upper house, a fully elected body.

Any judgement that the ruling party acted unconstitutionally in its push for the change could lead to its dissolution, with leading MPs facing five-year bans from politics.

This would risk fresh conflict in a nation that has been periodically rocked by bloody street rallies since huge protests helped topple Thaksin from power in 2006.

"There is no reason for me to dissolve the house or step down. We can still ensure peace and order. There is a lack of continuity if the government keeps changing," said Yingluck, who would not face a parliamentary ban because she is not listed as a party leader.

Judicial rulings have played an important role in politically turbulent Thailand.

Two pro-Thaksin premiers were forced from office in 2008 by such rulings.

This made way for the opposition Democrat Party, which is backed by the military and Bangkok's elite, to take power in a parliamentary vote.

Demonstrators linked to the opposition have remained on Bangkok's streets for several weeks in rallies against Thaksin and the ruling party, although their numbers have fallen since the amnesty bill was rejected by the senate on November 11.

Police said around 2,500 anti-government protesters rallied in Bangkok while an AFP photographer estimated 20,000 'Red Shirts' - loyal to Yingluck's party - had massed late Tuesday at a football stadium in the city suburbs ahead of the ruling.

The Red Shirts have vowed to oppose any decision that would remove another government linked to the ousted former premier.

"We want the (court) result to be positive," said 50-year-old Ounruan Posri at the stadium rally, where thousands of Reds were expected to camp out overnight. "A negative ruling will damage the country."

Experts said the constitutional court has a range of options, from allowing the amendment bill to become law, to declaring it unconstitutional and potentially bringing down the government.

Analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the court was likely to go for "something in the middle", preventing the amendment from becoming law as it stands but stopping short of a serious move against the ruling party.