BANGKOK Exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was banned from politics for five years on Wednesday and his party, the first to win an absolute majority in the country's history, disbanded.
The Constitutional Tribunal, at the end of a marathon 10-hour televised explanation of its verdicts on charges of breaches of election laws, said the ban extended to the entire 111-member executive committee of his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais).
The party will reform under a new name, but without the charisma of the billionaire Thaksin who was idolized by millions in the countryside and among the urban poor as the one Thai politician they believed really cared about them.
"This is not the last day of Thai Rak Thai, brothers and sisters," party spokeswoman Laddawan Wongsriwong told a distraught crowd of 1,000 people at party headquarters which hissed and booed at the verdict.
The time the tribunal took to explain the cases for and against Thai Rak Thai and the opposition Democrat Party -- Thailand's oldest party which was absolved of any wrongdoing -- and their verdicts may have been an effort to head off feared trouble from Thaksin supporters, analysts said.
But with so many Thai Rak Thai officials banned, that possibility was not dead, they said.
"It's a big surprise because banning more than 100 people will make the political game unfair. It's negative for the country's political climate, which needs checks and balances," leading financial analyst Thanawat Patchimkul said.
"It's a political massacre," said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, head of a leading brokerage.
Thaksin, living in exile in London, was saddened by the punishments, his lawyer said.
"It is an unexpected ruling and we are disappointed by the verdict. It's too harsh on Thai Rak Thai," Thaksin's lawyer and spokesman Noppadon Pattama told Reuters in Bangkok.
The tribunal found Thai Rak Thai guilty of paying a small party to run in elections last year to circumvent rules on single candidate polls.
It also said Thai Rak Thai paid two small parties to bribe an election official to falsify their records to show candidates were eligible to run in elections Thaksin called as street protesters accused him of abusing power and corruption.
"The Thai Rak Thai's crimes are very dangerous to democracy," Judge Krairerk Kasemsant said as Thai Rak Thai officials, including several former Thaksin cabinet colleagues, sat stonefaced as the verdict was read out.
There was no immediate violence in Bangkok, where 1,800 uniformed, riot and plain-clothes police surrounded the court with 13,000 police and troops waiting in the wings.
But that could still come, analysts said, with a new constitution due to be put to a referendum in September ahead of a general election the government installed by the military has promised for December.
"I think it would be naive to assume that a decision will resolve the current political problems," Global Insight analyst Elizabeth Mills said in London. "It will be difficult to envisage how meaningful elections can be held in December."
Few doubt the generals, who say they staged last September's coup in part to prevent violence as the street campaign against him grew, wanted Thaksin out of politics.
However, banning the telecommunications billionaire could outrage the millions of people in the countryside and the urban poor who gave him two landslide election victories.
"It is certain the people of the country won't accept it," Thai Rak Thai leader Chaturon Chaisang said while calling for restraint.
(Additional reporting by Bangkok bureau)