BANGKOK • A long-awaited verdict in the trial of former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra this week could inflame tensions and would likely have far-reaching implications in the politically divided kingdom.
The ruling military said more than 3,000 of Yingluck's supporters could show up at the court tomorrow in what would be one of the biggest political gatherings since her government was ousted in a 2014 coup.
Thousands of policemen will be on hand in a bid to head off the sort of trouble that has become a hallmark of antagonistic Thai politics over the past decade or more.
Yingluck has been accused of negligence in her handling of a multi-billion-dollar rice subsidy scheme, under which the government bought rice from farmers at inflated prices.
That led to stockpiles of rotting grain, distorted world prices and lost Thailand its crown as the world's top exporter. Losses amounted to US$8 billion (S$11 billion), according to the government.
Critics said the scheme was engineered by Yingluck's brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to shore up support among rural voters, who have handed electoral victory to a Shinawatra party in every election since 2001.
Yingluck has denied wrongdoing and has said she is the victim of political persecution. She faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty of negligence.
A military-backed legislature found her guilty in a separate impeachment case in 2015, and banned her from politics for five years, for failing to exercise sufficient oversight of the subsidy scheme. Despite that, Yingluck remains the unofficial face of the Shinawatra political machine, which, supporters say, the royalist-military establishment is determined to sideline once and for all.
Opposition activists said a guilty verdict would fuel anti-government anger and could spark a smattering of small protests in defiance of a government ban, particularly in the north and north-east, where support for the Shinawatras appears unwavering.
Police were setting up barricades and a checkpoint outside the Supreme Court, where the verdict will be delivered, while Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the government wanted to avoid trouble.
"The government is worried about the people. We don't want to use force," Mr Prayut, a former army chief who ousted Yingluck's government in the 2014 coup, told reporters.
Former political science professor at Chulalongkorn University Trakool Meechai said widespread sustained protests in response to a conviction of Yingluck were unlikely, given the firm grip the military has imposed.
But in the long term, a conviction could deter future governments from intervening to support markets.
"No matter how this case turns out, it will have an impact on Thai politics," the academic told Reuters. "This case will be a litmus test for how future politicians will manage the country."
A verdict of innocent would invigorate the rank and file of the Shinawatras' embattled Puea Thai Party and boost its prospects in a general election the junta has promised to hold next year.
"If the case is thrown out, it will increase the strength of Yingluck and her Puea Thai Party and this will show in the next election," the academic said.
But a guilty verdict would spell the end of Yingluck's political career, deal a heavy blow to the Shinawatras and their loyalists, and deepen the political divisions that the military has vowed to heal.