Shinawatra parties rally across Thailand as crucial court ruling looms

Aidan JONES
Thousands of people massed in Bangkok's historic centre for a defiant campaign by Thai Raksa Chart, a party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra

Parties aligned with Thailand's powerful Shinawatra clan staged major rallies Saturday ahead of a court ruling that could deal a gut punch to their prospects in national elections later this month.

Public gatherings were taking place across the country -- including in the Chiang Mai hometown of divisive billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Shinawatra-linked Pheu Thai party members addressed throngs of supporters in a stadium in Chiang Mai as the sun went down, promising development and incentives for entrepreneurs in the northern city.

Thaksin, who lives in self-exile to avoid jail in Thailand, is adored by rice farmers and large sections of urban working-class voters for his pro-poor policies and steering of the economy.

But he is despised by the royalist elite, whose allies have failed to beat him at the polls since 2001 and instead have relied on coups and court rulings to topple Shinawatra-backed governments.

Thousands of people also massed in Bangkok's historic centre late Friday for a defiant campaign by Thai Raksa Chart, another political party linked to the Shinawatra clan.

But Thai Raksa Chart could be dissolved by the Constitutional Court on March 7, after its bid to run a princess as candidate for prime minister spectacularly unravelled.

Supporters say the court has the future of Thai democracy in its hands -- with the junta determined to return as a civilian government.

"If it is dissolved it will damage our hopes for democracy badly," said Chailerm Phothijad, 55, at Friday night's rally in Bangkok.

Thailand -- which has been stuck on a carousel of coups, violent protests and short-lived civilian governments since 2006 when the army booted Thaksin from office -- remains deeply polarised.

Nerves are mounting inside Thai Raksa Chart as the crucial ruling nears.

But the party "will continue to campaign as we have been... and leave the issue of judiciary to the court," said Umesh Pandey, a Thai Raksa Chart party list candidate.

Thailand's contentious junta-drafted constitution allows the junta to appoint the 250-member senate, whose votes will count towards choosing the next prime minister.

There are 500 lower house seats up for grabs, 350 through constituencies and the remainder through the party list -- a system of proportional representation.

The different Shinawatra parties are meant to help rack up more votes within a system that limits the reach of big parties like Pheu Thai.

More rallies are planned for Sunday as election season heats up.

Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who took power in a 2014 coup, wants to return as prime minister.

With Thai Raksa Chart's political fate in the balance, another anti-junta party led by a billionaire is emerging as an untested -- but significant -- force.

Future Forward, led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 40-year-old scion of Thailand's biggest auto-parts maker, has won favour among the kingdom's millennials.

More than seven million people aged between 18 and 25 are eligible to vote this month for the first time, according to the Interior Ministry.

Analysts say if Thai Raksa Chart is disbanded its supporters may cast votes for Future Forward.

burs-apj/joe/rox