Victory for opposition as court ousts Thai PM

Protesters to end airport blockade after ruling

Anti-government protesters began to lift a blockade of Bangkok's international airport yesterday, after a court ruling that dissolved the government of the Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, over election fraud but left Thailand stuck in its worst political crisis for decades.

The Constitutional Court decision came after nearly two weeks of protests that have hit the country's vital tourism industry at a time of broader economic malaise because of the global downturn. It also raises the risk of clashes between government supporters and the anti-government lobby. Read out live on national television, the ruling is a major victory for the anti-government group but leaves a yawning political vacuum in Thailand.

There were mixed reports from the Suvarnabhumi international airport in the Thai capital but it was looking likely that passenger flights from the terminal would resume tomorrow, allowing an estimated 300,000 tourists, including thousands of Britons, to return home. Cargo flights from the airport resumed yesterday.

Mr Somchai and his six-party coalition agreed to step down after the court found the People Power Party (PPP), the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party guilty of vote-buying, and agreed to disband them.

Mr Somchai's government has been trapped in the northern city of Chiang Mai, an electoral stronghold for his government, since Wednesday. The opposition believes Mr Somchai is a puppet of his brother-in-law, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in exile and faces corruption charges at home.

"It is not a problem. I was not working for myself. Now I will be a full-time citizen," Mr Somchai said.

The ruling consigns him and senior figures in his government into political exile, as they are not allowed to take part in Thai politics for five years.

Hundreds of angry government supporters gathered outside the administrative court, where judges delivered the ruling after earlier demonstrations by the pro-government lobby forced them to move location.

Leaders of the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose grouping of royalists, rich businessmen and Bangkok's upper middle class, said all their protests would end this afternoon. Thousands of opposition members have been at Suvarnabhumi airport and the domestic Don Muang airport for almost a week. Earlier yesterday, an anti-government protester was killed and 22 people were injured at Don Muang when a grenade was fired at the terminal.

"We have won a victory and achieved our aims," media mogul and PAD founder Sondhi Limthongkul said in a statement. "We have gained our victory already. If there is something wrong, we will mobilise people and stage another protest, " he told cheering supporters.

The Constitutional Court ruling found Mr Somchai's People's Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007.

The court president, Chat Chalavorn, said the dissolution of the parties was intended to set a "political standard and an example". What will most likely happen now is that PPP officials will join a shell party called Pheu Thai (For Thais), set up in anticipation of the verdict.

Mr Somchai's predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, was thrown out of office in September after courts found him guilty of violating conflict of interest rules by appearing in a TV cookery programme, an appearance that also caused public digust. The political upheaval has taken a heavy toll on Thailand's image as the "Land of Smiles", and the tourism business will take a long time to recover.

The Thai Finance Minister, Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, announced this week that economic growth next year may slow to between 0-2 per cent, down from previous forecasts of 3-4 per cent expansion.

Three tourists, including two Canadians and a Briton, were killed in road accidents as they tried to find a way out of the increasingly tense country.

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