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STRAWS IN THE WIND - Eladio Dioko () - May 31, 2007 - 12:00am

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved Wednesday and its leaders, including ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, banned from politics after a top court found them guilty of electoral fraud.

The ruling eliminates the political powerhouse ahead of crucial national polls expected in December and threatens to prolong the political uncertainty that has gripped Thailand since the beginning of last year.

"The Thai Rak Thai party did not respect the rule of law," said one of the judges on a Constitutional Tribunal appointed by the junta that overthrew Thaksin in a coup last September.

"Thai Rak Thai cannot exist as a political party," the judge added.

The tribunal had earlier cleared Thailand's second main party and Thai Rak Thai's rival, the Democrat Party, of fraud.

The 61 year-old political organisation, Thailand's oldest, which ruled the kingdom on and off for a decade before Thai Rak Thai (TRT) first swept the polls in 2001, faced charges including obstructing political campaigning and slandering Thaksin.

"The facts cannot prove that the Democrats did any wrongdoing so there is no reason to dissolve the Democrats," said Thanit Kesawapitak, one of nine tribunal judges, after announcing the verdict.

The rulings stemmed from offences committed around April 2006 polls that were later annulled as fraud allegations piled up.

The tribunal found that the two senior TRT officials, former ministers Thammarak Isarangura and Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, paid small parties to run in the polls to get around a minimum vote requirement in single candidate races.

The judges also ruled that TRT had paid an official from the supposedly independent Election Commission to change party registration information.

The verdict doomed party leaders, even those such as Thaksin who have since quit TRT, banning them from politics for five years.

Thaksin resigned as party head last October, just days after being deposed.

"All of the Thai Rak Thai party executives at the time the wrongdoing was committed will be subject to the ban. Even if they quit later, they cannot escape the guilt," the judges said in their ruling.

Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile, was saddened by the unexpected ruling, his lawyer Noppadon Pattama was quoted as saying on a pro-Thaksin website.

"Thaksin has learned about the decision, and he is sad over what has happened -- it was unexpected and disappointing," Noppadon told www.Hi-Thaksin.

The judgments against both parties, which some analysts say could plunge the country into chaos, follow more than a year of upheaval.

Before the verdict, analysts had warned that disbanding Thailand's main parties could cause disarray, even if they simply re-established themselves under new party names and leaders.

They said the move would wipe out a generation of veterans and discourage younger politicians from stepping into leadership roles, significantly altering the kingdom's political landscape.

As tensions built ahead of the verdict, thousands of troops were put on alert and Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said emergency rule would be declared if a negative verdict sparked violence among party supporters, particularly Thaksin loyalists.

But leaders from both the TRT and Democrat Party promised to respect the court's ruling.

The Democrat verdict was met with cheers from supporters gathered at the party headquarters.

The ruling Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva thanked the judges and said his four-million-strong party was looking forward to the December polls.

"Tomorrow we will have a more important mission, that is to swiftly restore democratic rule under the constitution," he said.

The decision was greeted at TRT headquarters with sadness, disbelief and some bravado.

Current TRT leader Chaturon Chaisang urged the party's estimated
14 million loyalists to respect the court's decision for the sake of the kingdom's stability, but still branded it as unjust.

"We have not received justice," Chaturon told tearful supporters at the party's headquarters.

"The verdict was based on the thought that anyone who seeks the power is right, even if the power came from the gun... we (are) under the dictator's rule, which is not accepted overseas," he added.

Three minor parties were also dissolved Wednesday by the tribunal, which also found them guilty of fraud connected to the April polls.

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