Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by the nation’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday, in the culmination of six months of antigovernment protests.
Thailand’s first female Premier was convicted of abusing power by transferring the National Security Council chief to another position in 2011. Several other malfeasance cases are also pending against her.
Yingluck has denied any wrongdoing, telling a hearing Tuesday, “I am entitled to carry out responsibilities I have toward the people.”
While Yingluck’s opponents say transferring the civil servant was unconstitutional and an attempt to consolidate power for her Pheu Thai Party, critics have called the court’s decision a staggering overreach by the judicial arm of government.
“[The decision] shows you how politicized and compromised the Thai judicial system has become over the last decade,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, tells TIME. “In most other countries the sitting government has authority to make transfers of officials.”
In addition, the country's highest court decreed that nine current Cabinet members who were all serving with Yingluck in 2011 must also leave their posts.
Thailand has teetered on the brink of meltdown for almost half a year now. Antigovernment protests first erupted in November, sparked by opposition to an amnesty bill that would have allowed Yingluck’s brother — former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — home from exile.
The billionaire telecoms mogul is a divisive figure. He is credited with enfranchising the rural poor, but offended traditional elites and was eventually ousted in a coup in 2006. He was then convicted of corruption in absentia, charges he insists were politically motivated.
Despite shelving the amnesty bill, Yingluck faced ongoing demonstrations and accusations that she was merely a proxy for Thaksin. In response, she called elections for Feb. 2 to reassert her mandate, but these were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, all too aware that Thaksin-backed parties had won every election since 2001. Activists from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which leads opposition to the Shinawatra clan, also disrupted polling stations so that a quorum of 95% of constituencies returning lawmakers could not be fulfilled.
The PDRC, generally made up of royalists and urban-based elites, wants to suspend democracy and give power to an unelected “people’s council,” which the PDRC sees as taking over government while reforms are put in place to permanently purge the country of the Shinawatra family’s influence.
Fresh elections have been called for July 20, but once again the Democrat Party is threatening a boycott. “We’ve seen a concerted effort by the street protesters, the PDRC, the Democrat Party and independent agencies working in the same direction in different ways to oust Yingluck,” says Thitinan.
Those forces have now been given a huge boost from the judiciary, which is widely perceived as an elitist institution aligned with the monarchy and military and is thus seen, by extension, as favoring the PDRC and Democrat Party.
This is not the first time a Thaksin proxy government has been brought down by the Constitutional Court on a flimsy pretense. In 2008 the same body ousted Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for hosting several episodes of a commercial TV cooking show. “This court has a tradition for making ridiculous decisions,” says Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. "Thailand has become a juristocracy."
Many lament the unwillingness of the Thai opposition to compete at the ballot box. “Thaksin and Yingluck have serious shortcomings on corruption, on conflict of interest,” says Thitinan. "Yingluck's popularity is dropping, and the way forward in Thailand is to beat Thaksin but through the polls.”
For now, it appears likely that another show of popular force is set for Thailand’s streets. Already a rally of tens of thousands of Yingluck supporters has been planned in the capital for Sunday. In the most recent antigovernment protests, around 20 people were killed in shootings, bombings and violent skirmishes. In 2010 some 90 people died and 2,000 were injured during a government crackdown on a Red Shirt demonstration in central Bangkok.
Certainly, says Chambers, Wednesday’s decision “brings the entire castle of cards down on the Pheu Thai–led government.” And a country blighted by wanton disorder over the past decade braces for more of the same.