Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Friday annulled last month’s general election, leaving the country in political limbo without a full government and further undermining a prime minister faced with impeachment over a failed rice subsidy scheme.
Weakened by five months of unrest, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is expected to defend herself before an anti-corruption commission by March 31, and a decision to seek her impeachment could come soon after that, with the Senate expected to take up the matter quickly.
As the crisis deepens, there is a growing risk that the “red shirt” supporters of Yingluk and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra could confront their opponents in the streets, plunging Thailand into a fresh round of political violence.
Twenty-three people have been killed in the unrest since November, and the economy suffered and tourists stayed away as protesters shut government offices and at times blocked major thoroughfares in Bangkok to try to force Yingluck out.
Consumer confidence is at a 12-year low, prompting the central bank on Friday to cut its economic growth forecast for this year to 2.7 percent from 3 percent.
Confident that her Puea Thai Party would win, Yingluck had called an election on February 2 in a bid to defuse anti-government protests, and since then has headed a caretaker government with limited powers.
The Constitutional Court judges ruled in a 6 to 3 vote on Friday that the election was unconstitutional because voting failed to take place on the same day around the country.
Anti-government protesters had stopped voting in about a fifth of constituencies, and in 28 of them voting was not possible at all because candidates were unable to register.
The agitation was the latest chapter in an eight-year crisis that pits Bangkok’s middle class and royalist establishment against supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the army in 2006 and lives in exile to avoid a jail term for graft.
Encouraged by the dwindling number of protesters in recent weeks and relative calm on the streets, the government lifted a state of emergency on Wednesday.
But the focus has shifted to the courts, in particular to the prospect of Yingluck being impeached over a rice scheme that has gone badly wrong, with hundreds of thousands of farmers not getting paid for grain sold to the state since October.