BANGKOK: Thailand’s ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra faces an impeachment hearing on Friday, proceedings that could see her banned from politics for five years and reignite the country’s bitter divisions.
Yingluck, Thailand’s first female premier and the sister of self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was dumped from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army seized power in a coup on May 22.
She faces impeachment over her administration’s loss-making rice subsidy programme which — while popular among her rural powerbase — cost billions of dollars and was a driving force behind protests against her now toppled government.
Analysts say the impeachment proceedings are the latest attempt by the royalist elite to neuter the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
Impeachment by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly carries an automatic five-year ban from politics, but could also galvanise her family’s ‘Red Shirt’ supporters to protest after months of silence under martial law.
“We are confident it (the vote) will be done before the end of the month — roughly the 22nd or 23rd,” NLA deputy speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai told AFP.
The hearing is scheduled to start around 0300 GMT.
A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 250-strong national legislature to vote in favour.
Prosecutors are also in the process of deciding whether Yingluck should face a separate criminal case over the rice subsidy scheme.
Yingluck’s supporters say the proceedings and the criminal charges are part of a wider campaign to cripple the Shinawatra clan.
But the move is not without risks. A vote to impeach Yingluck could stir the Red Shirts to protest, ending months of relative calm since the army grabbed power and imposed martial law on the kingdom.
Paul Chambers, a specialist on Thai politics at Chiang Mai University, told AFP that impeachment or a criminal conviction “could easily open a can of worms for the regime in terms of renewed sympathy for the Shinawatras and the potential beginning of attempted demonstrations”.
Yingluck’s billionaire brother Thaksin, who was deposed as premier in a 2006 coup, sits at the heart of Thailand’s deep schism, despite living overseas to avoid jail for a graft conviction.
He is loathed by the Bangkok-centred establishment, its supporters in the south and among the judiciary and army, but still draws loyalty in the nation’s poor but populous northern half.
Since Thaksin swept to power in 2001, Shinawatra governments have been floored by two coups and bloodied by the removal of three other premiers by the kingdom’s interventionist courts.
The Shinawatras’ electoral dominance comes as concerns mount over Thailand’s future once the reign of revered 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej ends.
Critics say the rice scheme tapped Thai coffers to lavish money on the Shinawatras’ rural heartlands.
It also resulted in huge rice stockpiles as buyers baulked at the attempt by Yingluck’s administration to fund the costly scheme by hoarding the grain to force up prices.