# Court dissolves two main parties
# Thai premier banned from politics for 5 years
# The ruling is expected to widen the dangerous rift in Thai society that many fear could lead to violence between pro- and anti-government groups
BANGKOK - THAI Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said on Tuesday he accepted a verdict by the country's constitutional court which barred him from politics for five years and dissolved his party.
'My duty is over. I am now an ordinary citizen,' Mr Somchai, 61, told reporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai from where he has been governing since an opposition blockade of Bangkok's airports began last week.
Mr Somchai had become increasingly isolated in recent weeks. Neither the army, a key player in Thai politics, nor the country's much revered king had offered him firm backing.
'But it is unexpected that the decision would come out this way. In the past I have done my best, not for myself but for our country,' added Mr Somchai, the brother-in-law of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Earlier, the ruling party said members will regroup under a new name and propose a new prime minister, minutes after a court dissolved the group and barred the current premier from politics.
'As the court decided to dissolve the People Power Party, therefore the leader of the party and party executives must be banned from politics for five years,' said Mr Chat Chonlaworn, head of the nine-judge court panel.
'The court had no other option,' he said.
The People Power Party (PPP) had earlier set up a shell organisation in anticipation of the verdict by the country's constitutional court, PPP spokesman Kudeb Saikrajang told AFP.
'I am sad to hear this devastating ruling which we had no chance to defend,' Mr Kudeb said. 'But our remaining 216 MPs will move to the Pheu Thai (For Thais) party and bid to open the house to elect a new prime minister.'
The Constitutional Court dissolved Thailand's top three ruling parties for electoral fraud on Tuesday and temporarily barred the prime minister from politics, bringing down a government that faced months of strident protests seeking its ouster.
The ruling sends Mr Somchai and 59 executives of the three parties into political exile, barring them from politics for five years. Of the 59 members, 24 are lawmakers who will also have to resign their parliament seats.
The Constitutional Court ruling set the stage for thousands of protesters to end their weeklong siege of the country's two main airports, but also raised fears of retaliatory violence by a pro-government group that could sink the country deeper into crisis and cripple its economy.
Hundreds of Mr Somchai's supporters gathered outside the court to express their anger, saying the swiftness of the ruling - the closing arguments ended earlier on Tuesday - reeked of predetermination. At one point they cut off the power supply to the court, but electricity was restored with diesel generators.
'The court is not qualified to make this ruling. They are nothing more than apologists for the alliance, who are ruining the country,' said a speaker, shouting through a megaphone.
Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy protest group at Bangkok's international airport however cheered and hugged after they heard news of the verdict.
'My heart is happy. My friends are very happy,' said Mrs Pailin Jampapong, a 41-year-old Bangkok housekeeper choking back tears as she jumped up and down.
The yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators at the airports have been seeking to topple Somchai, whom they accuse of being a pawn for his brother-in-law, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and is now in exile.
A grenade was fired from a flyover near the domestic airport hours before the court hearing, killing one anti-government protester and wounding 22 people.
Fears of violent clashes, or worse, are growing.
'It now seems that violence cannot be avoided. Some even predict what has been unthinkable for 700 years: a civil war,' the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.
It also asked: 'Does Thailand have a functioning government?' That question could be even more pertinent after the court ruling forcing the PPP to disband.
Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-kau said that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his ruling, six-party coalition would step down.
'We will abide by the law. The coalition parties will meet together to plan for its next move soon,' he told The Associated Press.
He also said the government was postponing a regional summit in Thailand of South-east Asian countries, from December to March.
Mr Somchai's People's Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party were found guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections that brought the coalition to power with thumping majority.
Court President Chat Chalavorn said the court was dissolving the parties 'to set a political standard and an example.' 'Dishonest political parties undermine Thailand's democratic system,' he said in the court's ruling.
The ruling sends Mr Somchai and dozens of party executives into political exile, barring them from the country's politics for five years.
But other members of the three parties that escaped the ban can join other parties and try to cobble together a new coalition and choose a new prime minister.
All six parties in Thailand's ruling coalition vowed on Tuesday to stick together and form a new government, a spokesman said.
Until then, Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul will become the caretaker prime minister, said Ms Suparak Nakboonnam, a government spokesman. She said parliament will have to pick a new prime minister within 30 days.
Thousands of members of the protest alliance have been the main Suvarnabhumi international airport and the domestic Don Muang airport for about a week, cutting off all commercial traffic to the capital and stranding more than 300,000 foreign travelers here.
Several thousand PAD supporters have also occupied the prime minister's offices since August but the PAD has said it would hand the compound back to the authorities on Tuesday.
A Reuters reporter said only a handful of PAD activists remained at Government House early on Tuesday. There were no police present, but cranes had arrived to remove the shells of six buses used to barricade surrounding roads.
The PAD leadership apparently intends to move more supporters to the international airport, which has been blockaded for a week, adding to the pain of a tourist- and export-dependent economy already suffering from the global financial crisis.
Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech said on Monday the economy might be flat next year, or grow by just 1-2 per cent, after earlier growth forecasts of between 4-5 per cent.
The chaos has worried Thailand's neighbours, due to meet in the country in two weeks for a regional summit. The Thai cabinet is expected to approve a delay to March when it meets in Chiang Mai on Tuesday.
At the Suvarnabhumi airport, the verdict was read out on a protest stage outside the main terminal.
'It is good because the (corrupt) politicians have been told to get out. It is good for Thailand. This is a blow for corruption,' said Mr Nong Sugrawut, a 55-year-old businessman who was among the thousands camped at Suvarnabhumi.
Politicians banned by the verdict refused to comment.
'The court just banned me and my party from political activity so I can't give you any comment,' Mr Kuthep Saikrajang, a spokesman of the People's Power Party, told The Associated Pres. -- AP, AFP
[Thankfully, no bloodshed. But it does not bode well for democracy in Thailand. As it is their history of military coups does not put them in good light as a democracy. Now this invisibile coup. Perhaps it is an improvement over military coups, but not much. It is still mob rule rather than rule of law. And the demands for a partially appointed govt is not in line with democracy.]