BANGKOK: Thailand's Constitutional Court is set Wednesday to decide whether to remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (pic) from office on abuse of power charges, a ruling that threatens to unleash a new wave of political unrest in the kingdom.
The premier appeared at the court on Tuesday to deny allegations that she replaced the national security chief in 2011 for the benefit of her party - an offence for which she can be sacked.
But the court, which has played a key role in deposing Shinawatra-linked governments in recent turbulent chapters of Thai politics, said it was ready to rule at noon (0500 GMT) on Wednesday.
The case, one of two potential knockout legal moves against Yingluck's premiership, comes as Thailand's prolonged political crisis reaches a critical juncture.
After six months, anti-government protesters remain on Bangkok's streets - although in diminished numbers - and Yingluck's "Red Shirt" supporters are also threatening to rally to defend her, raising fears of clashes.
"Given the record of this particular set of Constitutional Court judges, it does not seem likely that the case against Yingluck will simply be dismissed," said Thailand-based author and scholar David Streckfuss.
"She is likely to be found guilty, and she will have to step down."
The kingdom has been bedevilled by a bitter political schism since 2006 when an army coup deposed Yingluck's brother, billionaire former telecoms magnate Thaksin Shinawatra.
He is reviled by the Bangkok elite, middle class and royalist southerners who say he has sponsored nepotism, widespread corruption and perceive him as a threat to the monarchy.
But he is loved by the populous, poor north and northeast and among the urban working class for recognising their burgeoning political and economic aspirations.
They have returned Shinawatra-led or linked governments to power in every election since 2001.
Thaksin lives overseas to avoid jail for corruption convictions, but is accused of running the country by proxy through his sister.
If Yingluck is dismissed then a deputy prime minister can replace her until a new government is formed through elections.
But observers say it is possible the court will also rule against her cabinet for endorsing the decision to transfer security chief Thawil Pliensri, who has since been reinstated.
Sacking Yingluck and her entire cabinet could send the kingdom into uncharted territory, creating a political vacuum with the nation without a premier, cabinet and lower house - which was dissolved to hold elections in February that were later annulled.
In that scenario, the anti-government protesters would swiftly push for the Thai Senate to appoint a premier and government - a key aim as they seek to reform Thailand's political system to curb the influence of the Shinawatra family.
"If the government does not accept the verdict... then it's up to the people to come out and pressure them to accept it," Akanat Promphan, spokesman for the anti-government movement told AFP.
The ruling Puea Thai party accuses the court of railroading through Yingluck's case to satisfy its political bias against the Shinawatras.
The Constitutional Court oversees cases of violations of Thailand's charter, which was rewritten after Thaksin's removal.
In 2008, the court forced two Thaksin-linked prime ministers from office.
It also annulled the February election called by Yingluck to shore up her flagging administration, citing widespread disruption by opposition protesters.
Yingluck appears pincered by legal moves against her premiership, with anti-graft officials also set to rule in coming days on whether to indict her on neglect of duty charges in connection with a costly rice subsidy scheme.
An unfavourable ruling could also see her impeached by the senate and banned form politics for five years.
Six months of street protests have left 25 people dead and hundreds wounded in gun and grenade attacks, kindling fears of wider clashes between rival political sides.
Pro-government "Red Shirts" say they will not accept another democratically elected government being upended by the Thai courts.
With both sides convinced they can prevail, the ongoing battle for "Thailand's soul" looks set to drag on, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Somehow both sides have to think that they cannot win it all - that's when we will see some compromise... but right now we are likely to see things get much worse before things get better." -AFP
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