BANGKOK, Thailand (3RD UPDATE) – Thailand's Constitutional Court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office for abuse of power on Wednesday, in a ruling that threatens to unleash a new wave of political unrest in the kingdom.
Shortly after the court ruling, the Thai cabinet appointed a new caretaker prime minister – Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Commerce.
The court, which has played a key role in deposing Shinawatra-linked governments in recent turbulent chapters of Thai politics, ruled unanimously that she acted illegally by transferring a top security official in 2011.
"Therefore her prime minister status has ended... Yingluck can no longer stay in her position acting as caretaker prime minister," presiding judge Charoon Intachan said in a televised ruling.
Several cabinet ministers who endorsed the decision to transfer Thawil will also be stripped of their status.
The court also declined to appoint a new prime minister.
Phongthep Thepkanjana, a deputy prime minister, told reporters that a caretaker prime minister had been appointed.
"The cabinet has agreed to appoint Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan to act as caretaker prime minister," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the court ruling would create a political vacuum or if one of Yingluck's ministers nominated after Thawil's transfer would be able to step into her shoes, pending a future election.
The case plunges Thailand deeper into a prolonged political crisis with anti-government protesters still on Bangkok's streets and Yingluck's "Red Shirt" supporters also threatening to rally to defend her, raising fears of clashes.
Jubilant anti-government demonstrators blew whistles outside the court to mark her removal – a key demand of their movement, which is seeking to curb the influence of Yingluck's billionaire brother, Thaksin.
"I am happy even though the the whole cabinet has not been removed. People who do not respect the law should be thrown out," Linjong Thummathorn told the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The kingdom has been bedevilled by a bitter political schism since 2006 when an army coup deposed former telecoms magnate Thaksin.
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.
Normally, a deputy prime minister can replace the premier in the event of their dismissal until a new government is formed through elections.
But the court ruling against several senior cabinet ministers leaves a question mark over who is able to take over the top job.
The kingdom could move into uncharted territory, leaving 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 are expected to 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 before the ruling.
The ruling Puea Thai party has accused 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 is also to find out over the coming days if she will be indicted by anti-graft officials for neglect of duty charges in connection with a costly rice subsidy scheme.
An unfavorable ruling could also see her impeached by the senate and banned from politics for 5 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." – Rappler.com