BANGKOK: Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is set on Monday to defend herself against negligence charges linked to a controversial rice subsidy scheme that could lead to her removal from office and a ban from politics.
Yingluck has been summoned to appear before the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) by Monday after a bid to push back the deadline for her defense was rejected.
The scheme, which paid farmers above market rates for their crop, has become a lightning rod for anger from her political opponents who have massed on Bangkok’s streets for months in a bid to topple her government.
They allege the subsidy punched a hole in Thai finances, battered the country’s rice-producing industry, and fostered massive corruption—all to shore up the rural base of Yingluck and her brother, the wildly divisive self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted as premier in a 2006 coup.
Bancha Paramesanaporn, one of Yingluck’s lawyers, said the prime minister had yet to “decide whether or not” to contest the charges in person, but said her legal team will be present at the NACC on Monday afternoon.
The kingdom, riven by a festering eight-year political division, is trapped in legislative limbo with only a caretaker government following incomplete February elections since annulled by the Constitutional Court.
Observers say the crisis is poised to enter a crucial new phase, with NACC appearing set to move against the embattled premier.
If indicted, the prime minister will be immediately suspended from office pending an impeachment vote in the upper house of parliament within weeks.
Yingluck has protested her innocence but if she is found guilty also faces a possible five-year ban from politics, as well as potential imprisonment by the courts on criminal charges.
Last week, the under-fire premier said the NACC had not given her enough time to examine the full evidence against her.
“Why haven’t they [the NACC]allowed me to check the evidence first?” she wrote on her official Facebook page.
“The allegations against me involve a lot of documents and witnesses—I asked my lawyer to ask for an extension for 45 days (to respond)—but my request for fairness has not been granted, not even for one day,” she added.
PM’s legal woes mount
The nine-strong NACC panel is an independent body, but government supporters say it is politically biased against the administration.
They accuse the NACC of driving through Yingluck’s case in-step with anti-government protests, while failing to complete a near four-year-old graft case against former Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva as well as a slew of corruption cases against Suthep Thaugsuban—the firebrand leader of the anti-government street movement.
Thailand’s Senate, which will preside over any impeachment proceedings, has moved to center-stage as the political drama intensifies.
Polls for the elected portion of the Senate—representing a narrow majority of the upper house—were successfully held on Sunday with an estimated 40 percent turnout.
The rest of the upper chamber is appointed by institutions seen as being allied to the anti-government establishment, including the Constitutional Court and Election Commission.
While the Senate is officially non-partisan, in reality the two main political camps are vying for control of the chamber with key impeachment rulings ahead.
Yingluck has resisted street pressure to step down and anti-gov–ernment protesters appear to have pinned their hopes of ousting her on the kingdom’s legal agencies.