BANGKOK (AP) — A court in Thailand on Thursday ordered the dissolution of a major political party ahead of this month's general election because it nominated a member of the royal family to be its candidate for prime minister.
The Constitutional Court also banned members of the Thai Raksa Chart Party's executive board from political activity for 10 years.
The ruling raised fresh questions about the fairness of the upcoming election, the first since a military coup toppled a democratically elected government in May 2014.
Thai Raksa Chart on Feb. 8 nominated Princess Ubolratana Mahidol as its candidate in the March 24 polls. Her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, later that day issued a royal order calling the nomination highly inappropriate and unconstitutional.
Thai Raksa Chart is aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allied parties have won every national election since 2001 but have twice been toppled in coups. The latest election is being held under rules that are generally acknowledged as making it hard for pro-Thaksin parties to win a majority, and the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart will make it all the more difficult.
The Constitutional Court is one of the most conservative institutions in Thailand and has consistently ruled against Thaksin and his allies.
Its statement explaining Thursday's ruling was even more critical of the party's action than the king had been. It appeared to ascribe ill intentions to the party's actions, blaming it for endangering a tradition that keeps the royal family above politics, even though Ubolratana embraced the nomination enthusiastically on her popular Instagram account.
As legal justification for the nomination, the party had pointed out that she held no formal royal titles because they were rescinded when she married a foreigner, an American, in 1972.
The nine-judge panel spurned such reasoning, following instead the king's line of argument that "Even though she relinquished her title according to royal laws ... she still retains her status and position as a member of the Chakri dynasty."
The court voted unanimously to dissolve the party, and by a vote of 6-3 for the political ban on its executive members.
Thursday's ruling was the third time a court has dissolved a political party associated with Thaksin on grounds that his supporters believe were slim and politically motivated. Two predecessor parties to his current main vehicle, Pheu Thai, were dissolved in 2007 and 2008.
Thai Raksa Chart leader Preechapol Pongpanit avowed his group's loyalty to the king and the monarchy after Thursday's ruling.
"I and the party's executives have the utmost regret over the party's dissolution, which affects the fundamental political rights and freedom of the party members and the people," he said. Thanking their supporters, he added that "For me and the party executives, no matter what our status is, we will act for the benefit of the country."
Ubolratana gave a brief reaction Thursday evening to the dissolution, responding "So I have heard. It's sad and depressing," to a comment on her Instagram account noting the court action.
Soon after the king's statement last month, the Election Commission disqualified Ubolratana's nomination and forwarded to the court its recommendation that the party be dissolved because its candidate was "in conflict with the system of rule of democracy with king as head of state."
Ubolratana's nomination was a stunning move, not only because it would have broken a taboo on a senior member of the royal family running for public office, but also because it would have allied her with a party considered by many royalists to be unsympathetic to the monarchy. The army cited Thaksin's alleged disrespect for the monarchy as one of its reasons for ousting him in 2006.
Thaksin's populist policies delivered unmatchable electoral majorities, but he was resented by the traditional ruling class, including royalists and the military. Thaksin went in exile in 2008 to avoid serving jail time on a corruption conviction he insists was politically motivated.
The leader of the ruling junta and prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is seeking to become prime minister again after the election, though he is not running for a seat in Parliament.
One of the new laws passed under military rule allows non-lawmakers to become prime minister in a vote by the upper and lower house. The upper house is entirely appointed by the ruling junta.
Ubolratana's nomination was initially thought of as a clever move to by Thaksin to outmaneuver the new electoral rules. But when the king issued his statement, it quickly became apparent it was a huge political blunder.
The ruling leaves the main pro-Thaksin party, Pheu Thai, in the race. But because of strategic cooperation by the pro-Thaksin parties not to split the vote in many constituencies, the overall prospects of Thaksin's forces will be hurt.
In an analysis made ahead of the ruling, Prajak Kongkirati, who teaches political science at Thammasat University, predicted that dissolution would weaken the Thaksin side significantly.
"The chance of Thaksin's side winning the election and forming the government is still possible," Prajkak said. "But, if the party is dissolved, the chance will be slim."
However, there is also speculation that Thai Raksa Chart supporters may be energized by the perception their side is being victimized again by the anti-Thaksin establishment, and they may offer important support for parties with a similar anti-military stance, even if they are not pro-Thaksin.
Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.