Decision concluding rice-pledging case will have wide-ranging implications for politics.
AN EAGERLY awaited verdict in the case of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra tomorrow could determine the future of Thai politics.
There are three major scenarios possible regarding the fate of Yingluck, who is charged with negligence stemming from her government’s corruption-plagued rice-pledging scheme.
The Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders could find her guilty and sentence her to a prison term; she could be found guilty and given a suspended sentence; or she could be found not guilty.
Before “judgment day”, political observers are eager to see if Yingluck will follow the lead of her big brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country before the same court in 2008 sentenced him in absentia to two years in jail for abuse of power.
Yingluck could either opt to escape or wait until August 25 to hear the court’s verdict.
If she thinks she will be found guilty and opts for the first choice, it would be a point of no return for her. She would be on the run for the rest of her life, as Thaksin has been, living in self-exile overseas for almost 10 years now.
A second choice – facing the verdict although it might be “guilty” – would not be the end of the world for Yingluck, as she would still have an opportunity to fight on.
If the verdict is against her, the ex-PM still has the right to appeal within 30 days, according to the current Constitution. And some legal experts have pointed out that the timetable could be extended.
An appeal would help her buy more time for freedom and the court might eventually uphold the verdict or reduce the penalty.
However, any imprisonment of Yingluck would not be good for the image of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Her imprisonment would make her a more sympathetic figure and could elevate her to the status of a “democracy icon” – similar to Myanmar’s former opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest under her country’s military dictatorship.
“The NCPO would prefer that Yingluck flee the country rather than face the verdict. If she escapes, she will fall into the junta’s trap,” a political observer said on condition of anonymity.
A guilty verdict, however, would not be good for reconciliation efforts and it could be used by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party to draw sympathy and support ahead of the general election scheduled for next year. The party could emerge victorious, winning more than half the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.
If she is found guilty and given a suspended jail term, it would be a compromise option that could maintain the momentum of reconciliation.
Such a verdict could help ease political tension and buy time for Yingluck.
Whatever the verdict, pressure would be eased as both the prosecution and defence would be likely to appeal.
By appealing a guilty verdict, Yingluck would run the risk of being sent to jail and foregoing her suspended sentence, although there is also the possibility the court would dismiss the case against her.
However, even a suspended jail term could become a stigma for Yingluck’s political career and her enemies could take advantage to undermine her popularity.
The third scenario – in which Yingluck is acquitted – would be the worst-case scenario for the NCPO, but the best one for Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party. However, some political observers view this scenario as the least likely.
If the court dismisses the case, pressure from the anti-Thaksin camp will mount on the NCPO while it will be highlighted by the Pheu Thai in the run-up to the next general election.
For many critics, that scenario would make the NCPO’s May 2014 coup a “waste of time”, so the anti-Thaksin camp would pressure the junta and public prosecutors to appeal the acquittal. As a result, reconciliation attempts would go nowhere.
Apart from the criminal implications, a guilty verdict would put more weight on authorities’ civil action against Yingluck seeking damages of Bt35 billion in connection with losses from the rice-pledging scheme.
Yingluck faces an administrative order for her to pay compensation for losses, but she recently petitioned the Administrative Court seeking a revocation of the order. An acquittal in the negligence case would also give the former prime minister an edge in her request for the administrative order to be revoked.
Some legal experts have said an acquittal would not mean the Administrative Court would necessarily grant Yingluck’s request, as judges would still need to look into the details of her innocence or whether there was an intention to cause damage.