Thai court clears the Democrat Party on charges of election law violations

A Thai court cleared the country's oldest political party on charges of election law violations, sparing it from possible disbandment ahead of crucial December elections.

While clearing the Democrat Party, the Constitutional Tribunal still had to issue a verdict on separate charges against the Thai Rak Thai party of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that could result in it being dissolved.

The court took more than four hours to complete reading the charges and verdicts against the Democrats, and when the court session resumed in the evening, started reading the case against Thai Rak Thai.

"There are no legal grounds to disband" the Democrat Party, a judge announced, bringing cheers and chants of "Democrats Fight On!" from crowds gathered at the party headquarters.

"Today is the day many of us have been waiting for," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. "I want it to be the day that we close the chapter of confusion, stress and strain in the country. From tomorrow on, we have much to do and our priority is to bring back democracy to the country and go forward with the elections."

Thaksin's government was ousted after months of political tension last year by the military, which continues to rule the country in tandem with an appointed civilian government until new polls are held.

The court ruled the Democrat Party had not unfairly maligned Thaksin or breached election laws by urging voters to cast a "no" vote the equivalent of an abstention in last year's elections.

It also found the party innocent of using a smaller party to trick Thai Rak Thai into election law violations, and ruled it had not obstructed a parliamentary candidate from registering in a southern constituency.

A guilty verdict against the still-powerful Thai Rak Thai could result in it being disbanded or its executives being banned from politics for five years, or both.

Under the law, the party could register under a different name to run in future elections. Still, party dissolution would knock the once-dominant Thai Rak Thai off-balance ahead of the next polls. An even bigger blow would be the exclusion of its executives from office, since that would affect 118 top politicians.

In London, where he is living in exile, Thaksin urged supporters to remain calm.

"We have to respect the rules of the game. That is, the rule of the law," he said.

Phongthep Thepkanchana, deputy leader of Thai Rak Thai, told reporters executives of the party remained confident that it would not be disbanded.

Thai Rak Thai is accused of financing obscure parties to run against it in last year's elections, to get around rules requiring a minimum voter turnout in constituencies where single candidates run unopposed.

Thaksin had called last year's elections to reaffirm his mandate to rule after months of street protests demanding his resignation for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

The Democrats and several smaller opposition parties boycotted the April elections, which were annulled by the courts, leaving Thailand with a caretaker government and a political crisis that led to Thaksin's ouster in a coup last September.

The coup leaders have promised to draft a new constitution and hold elections to restore democracy by December.

The leaders of both parties had publicly promised to accept Wednesday's rulings, but there were concerns there might be demonstrations by supporters of Thai Rak Thai which could turn violent if the verdict went against it.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont warned earlier Wednesday that he would re-impose a state of emergency if violence erupted. Thousands of security officers fanned out across the Thai capital, and political Web sites were shut down amid fears of unrest. However, the capital remained calm.

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