BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's top court on Wednesday rejected the ruling party's attempt to amend the constitution, dealing a defeat to a government that has been plagued by mass street protests.
The Constitutional Court's ruling, however, spared the government a worst-case scenario by turning down a request from opponents to dissolve the ruling party.
In its 6-to-3 vote, the court ruled that Parliament had committed procedural errors in its bid to amend the constitution, saying that it did not allow critics sufficient speaking time during the debate and that several lawmakers had committed fraud during the electronic voting process. But it said the acts "did not meet the conditions" to dissolve the ruling party.
"Democracy is not just about elections," the court said in its ruling. "It does not give a mandate for representatives to use their power without considering what is right and legal under the rule of law."
Wednesday's ruling follows another political setback to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government when the Senate last week rejected its bid to pass a political amnesty bill that critics said was designed to bring home deposed former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother.
Analysts said Wednesday's ruling could deepen Thailand's political crisis by angering Thaksin supporters and emboldening his opponents, both of whom have staged mass protests for years that were recently revived.
Whether the Constitutional Court's action will spark a minor skirmish or a major battle on the long-running war between supporters and opponents of Thaksin — who fled into exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption — depends on how the parties involved react to it.
Praise rolled in from Thaksin's critics.
"I'd like to thank the nine judges for delivering justice," said Somchai Sawaengkarn, a senator who helped bring the case before the court. "The verdict sets a precedent that shows the balance in Thai democracy — that the legislative, judicial and executive branches must work to balance one another."
Leaders of a pro-government demonstration said they would announce their next move Wednesday evening to thousands gathered at a Bangkok stadium.
Thaksin supporters were bound to see Wednesday's ruling as the latest in many court decisions against the former leader and his allies.
The courts, deeply conservative and royalist, played a vanguard role in the battles against Thaksin even before he was deposed by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the monarchy. Court rulings in 2006 encouraged Thaksin's opponents before he was ousted and in 2008 forced two pro-Thaksin prime ministers out of office.
His sister Yingluck swept to power in a 2011 general election, unseating the opposition after a military crackdown on Thaksin's supporters a year earlier that left more than 90 people dead.
Rangsit University political scientist Thamrongsak Petchlertanan said that with Thaksin's side having an overwhelming electoral mandate, the court was "the last fortress of the establishment and the authoritarians."
"This is a war between the legislative branch and the judicial branch," Thamrongsak said.
The proposed amendment to the constitution would have required all senators to be elected, rather than split the seats between elected and appointed members. The change was proposed and passed by the ruling party, which has an absolute majority in the lower house. Appointed senators generally share the conservative outlook of senior judges, and some are leading lights of the anti-Thaksin movement.
The court said in its ruling that another aspect of the amendment — which would have allowed spouses or family members of lower house lawmakers to run for the Senate — could lead to a lack of checks and balances and turn the legislature into "a husband and wife Parliament."