BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court ordered the prime minister to quit on Tuesday for hosting TV cooking shows, but his party said it would re-elect him within the week and protesters vowed to keep up a campaign that has paralyzed the government.
Analysts said the guilty verdict should have provided at least a stop-gap solution to the crisis, but the likelihood of the stalemate dragging on for months will almost certainly take a further toll on Thailand’s financial markets.
The Constitutional Court, in a televised broadcast, said Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had violated the constitution by hosting cooking shows on commercial television while in office, calling it a conflict of interest.
Within minutes, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) brushed off the verdict and said it wanted parliament to meet on Friday to re-elect the 73-year-old as prime minister.
“I insist that our party leader will be the prime minister,” chief government whip Wittaya Buranasiri told reporters.
Protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who accuse Samak of being a puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as premier by the army in a 2006 coup, said they would not move from Government House, where they have barricaded themselves for two weeks.
Deputy Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat — who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law — will become acting prime minister, the government said, an appointment hardly likely to calm PAD anger.
“We will stay here until this government is thrown out,” PAD leader Prapan Kunmee told the crowd from the rock concert-style protest stage that now sits on the front lawn of Samak’s official compound. “Samak may come back.”
But there was jubilation among the thousands of activists as the verdict was announced, although many were drenched by a sharp thunderstorm which eased just before the court session began.
“Get out, get out,” they chanted, clapping and cheering among the puddles.
“The court did the right thing,” said 64-year-old housewife Sikarin Inksakunsombun, panting after dancing a jig in jubilation. “If Samak is elected again (by his supporters), they can go to hell. There is such a thing as ethics.”
There was no immediate reaction from Samak himself, who was believed to be traveling back to Bangkok from a “mobile” cabinet meeting in Udon Thani, a PPP stronghold 560 km (350 miles) northeast of the capital.
The stock market, which has fallen 24 percent since the PAD started its street protest against Samak in May, closed down 0.3 percent on Tuesday, having shown little reaction to the verdict.
But analysts said the continuing stalemate and a state of emergency imposed on the kingdom last week would spook investors.
“If this is prolonged to late September or early October, economic growth will be cut by 0.5-0.6 points,” Thanavat Polvichai, director of the Economic and Business Forecast Centre of Thai Chamber of Commerce University, told a news conference.
Kosin Sripaiboon, senior analyst of UOB Kay Hian Securities, said he expected foreigners to sell a further $1 billion worth of Thai shares on top of $3.2 billion already jettisoned this year.
The PAD, a mix of royalist businessmen, academics and activists united by their hatred of Thaksin, had hoped to bury Samak with the conflict of interest charges.
Testifying in his own defence on Monday, the belligerent star of the aptly named “Tasting, Grumbling” denied any wrongdoing and suggested that the case against him was politically motivated.
With the thick skin that has typified his behavior throughout, Samak toured a meat and vegetable market in Udon Thani on Tuesday before his weekly cabinet meeting.
At a pro-government rally on Monday evening, he vowed not to resign or call a snap election.
The standoff between the government and PAD has paralyzed administration decision-making at a time of slowing economic growth and high inflation.
It has also scared away visitors to the “Land of Smiles”, with airlines and hotels reporting cancellations amid a flurry of travel warnings in the wake of a street battle between pro- and anti-government groups last week and Samak’s declaration of emergency rule.
Two years after its removal of Thaksin in a coup, the army ignored Samak’s orders to move against the PAD, insisting it would not intervene again, but senior officers acknowledge the political crisis has reached a stalemate.
If the deadlock continues or more people are hurt or killed, the crisis could trigger a move by revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has stepped into several disputes during his six decades on the throne.
Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Paul Tait