BANGKOK — A Thai court on Wednesday ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra removed from office, a highly divisive move and a victory for a powerful opposition movement that has sought to overthrow the government for six months.
The Constitutional Court ruled that Yingluck abused her power when she transferred a civil servant to another post more than three years ago.
The court ordered her to step down immediately, along with all members of her Cabinet who were in office at the time of the transfer.
Yingluck’s party called the decision a “new form of coup d’etat.”
Leaders of Yingluck’s party quickly announced that a deputy prime minister, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, would become acting prime minister.
It was the third time since 2006 that a prime minister representing the political movement founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, has been removed by court order. The movement, which has its power base in the provinces, has won every election since 2001 but has antagonized the Bangkok establishment, a struggle that is at the heart of Thailand’s eight years of political crisis.
Thailand for decades was considered an island of pluralism, freedom, and strong economic growth — especially in contrast with its neighbors — but its economy has suffered during the recent turmoil, and leaders have warned of civil war.
The court’s decision, which highlights its overtly political role, throws into question elections announced for July 20, which the governing party was expected to win because of its strong support in the northern provinces.
Bhokin Bhalakula, a member of the governing party, Pheu Thai, told reporters at the party’s headquarters that the court decision was part of a “new form of coup d’etat in order to establish a new regime and destroy the hope of the people who want to see the country progress democratically and with rule of law.”
Niwattumrong, the commerce minister who was named acting prime minister, is a former executive in Thaksin’s corporate empire. His appointment probably will exacerbate tensions with the antigovernment movement, which wants to eradicate Thaksin’s influence from the country.
Verapat Pariyawong, a lawyer and prominent commentator, said the court’s removal of Yingluck raised the prospect of more violence. At least 20 people have been killed in political violence since the governing party set off protests in November by trying to ram through a bill giving political amnesty to Thaksin that would erase corruption cases against him and allow him to return from self-imposed exile.
The antigovernment movement, which is armed, continues to block access to the prime minister’s office and a number of other government facilities in Bangkok.
Progovernment “red shirts,” who in the past have also been allied with shadowy armed groups, are planning a show of force on the outskirts of Bangkok on Saturday.
Highlighting concerns about violence, the Thai news media reported Wednesday that for security reasons, the judges and staff members of the Constitutional Court would not return to work until Tuesday.
Yingluck was the country’s first female prime minister but has been loathed by the opposition and has been called a proxy for Thaksin, who has lived abroad since a 2006 military coup and a subsequent conviction for abuse of power in a highly politicized trial.
“I am so sorry that I no longer have the opportunity to serve the people,” Yingluck said on national television after the court decision, adding that she was proud that she became prime minister “through democratic means.”
Yingluck could face further legal proceedings on charges that she mismanaged the government’s costly subsidy program for rice farmers, charges that could lead to a prison term and a ban from politics. The country’s counter-corruption commission will decide Thursday whether to press the case.
The court’s verdict was unanimous and was reached with unusual speed. It was delivered just one day after Yingluck gave evidence at the court.
The antigovernment movement, which is supported by some of Thailand’s wealthiest families, has called for an appointed prime minister and described Wednesday’s court verdict as a partial victory.
The grounds for Yingluck’s ouster were that she did not give sufficient justification when she transferred the secretary general of the National Security Council, Thawil Pliensri, to another post in 2011.
The court said Yingluck was within her rights to remove Thawil but that the move was rushed, designed to free up another job for a relative of Yingluck, and not done according to “moral principles.”
In a stark symbol of the dysfunction of the Thai government, Thawil was reinstated, on court order, last week, and he told the news media that even while in office, he would continue to support the movement to remove the government.