Bangkok - Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra faces acourt hearing this week that could bar her from office, a move that would be in line with the aims of recent anti-government protests, but that would plunge the country into uncharted waters.
Officials have hinted that even a ruling against her and her cabinet could leave enough of it intact to limp on to fresh elections, or might even not be implemented, while opposition activists have hinted at the possibility of wider civil conflict.
On Friday, Yingluck is due before the Constitutional Court to defend herself against charges that she abused her premiership in 2011 when she transferred the chief of the National Security Council, allegedly to assure the advancement of one of her relatives.
A ruling is expected before the end of the month, with Yingluck's chances of success rated as low. Last month, the case was before the Administrative Court, which said Yingluck's removal of the council's chief Thawil Pliensri three years ago was unlawful.
If the Constitutional Court finds her guilty of transferring a civil servant for personal benefit, in breach of the constitution, she and her cabinet, whose members also approved the transfer, could face dismissal.
Other parts of government are already out of action. The parliament is not sitting after elections this year failed to elect enough members, and the new senate is pending validation. If the court dismisses the premier and cabinet, it could create the political vacuum the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC),which has led months of protests, has been striving for since November.
The PDRC wants an appointed prime minister to rule with an interim cabinet for about a year while reforms are passed before an election is held.
But the current cabinet is not expected to leave quietly. "If the court steps across the boundary too much, do you think their decision will be respected?" said Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana, a former judge and justice minister.
He also said dismissal is not technically possible since "(T)he prime minister and all cabinet members have been out of our positions since Parliament was dissolved on December 9."
"We cannot be ousted a second time," he said. Others argue that 16 of the current caretaker ministers were not in office when Thawil was transferred, and so should not be implicated.With that much of the cabinet still in office, the caretaker administration could hang on until a general election.
Should the Constitutional Court sack the entire cabinet, it risks apolitical backlash.The court has a track record of judgement against the Yingluck government and her Pheu Thai Party, whose de facto leader is her brother, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, living abroad since 2008 to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption.
Thaksin-led political parties have won every election in Thailand since 2001, with a focus on populist policies aimed at the less affluent.Pheu Thai and their street demonstration support movement the Red Shirts have said they will oppose any attempt to appoint an unelected premier.
"The Red Shirts and others will fight," predicted caretaker Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng, a senior Pheu Thai member.
"It will be a big conflict, but probably not civil war. Thai people are not brave enough for that."Some question whether Pheu Thai is even brave enough to ignore the court."Going against the court would risk the whole system collapsing into anarchy or civil war, and I am not sure the Pheu Thai is up to that,"said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
Barring the outbreak of civil war or unlikely prompt elections,anti-government forces are hoping to bring into play the constitution's Article 7.
The article states, "Whenever no provision of this constitution is applicable to any case, it should be decided in accordance with the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as head of state.
"The PDRC interprets the clause as meaning that in a political vacuum a prime minister can be appointed by "the people" with the endorsement of the king.
Who represents the people in such a case isan open question.The Constitutional Court has also been asked to rule on the correct process of finding a new premier in the event of Yingluck's dismissal."There is no article in the constitution that really describes what is about to happen," said PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan. "It has never happened before."