Thailand's interim assembly spared 248 former Members of Parliament from impeachment yesterday, keeping intact an ousted ruling party that has been suppressed since last year's military coup.
The former lawmakers had supported an amendment to the national Charter in 2013 that would have created a fully elected Senate, an act later deemed illegal by the Constitutional Court.
If impeached, they would have been banned from politics for five years, and possibly barred for life if the draft Constitution now being debated is enacted.
Of the 248 former legislators, 218 belonged to the former ruling Puea Thai party. The rest were members of the Puea Thai-led coalition in the 500-member Lower House.
All of them had ceased to be lawmakers from December 2013, when then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections amid growing unrest on the streets.
But the election held in February last year was sabotaged by protesters, plunging the country into a gridlock that ended in a military coup last May.
"This was no small case," Dr Jarupan Kuldiloke, one of the former Puea Thai parliamentarians now in the clear, told The Straits Times. "These are (elected) representatives of almost the whole country." If the impeachment had gone through, it would have had a chilling effect on future lawmakers. "No one would dare to issue laws through Parliament anymore," she said.
Yingluck, who was booted out of office by a Constitutional Court ruling shortly before the coup, was impeached retroactively by the military-appointed assembly after the takeover.
She is now being tried in the Supreme Court for alleged negligence for her administration's controversial rice subsidy scheme, and could be jailed up to 10 years if convicted.
Asean's second-largest economy has been embroiled in a bitter political conflict for nearly a decade. Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted as premier in 2006 by a coup and has lived in exile since 2008. His political parties have won every election since 2001, only to be dislodged repeatedly by court rulings and military coups which his supporters argue were engineered by the elite.
While coup-maker and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said he has not wavered from his original "road map" to fresh elections, the projected poll date has been pushed back several times since the military takeover. The draft Constitution has to pass the scrutiny of a reform council, as well as a referendum, before elections can be called. As a result, the poll may take place as late as in 2017.
Several sticking points in the draft Charter have weighed the process down. The most recent is a proposal to create a "crisis panel" comprising military chiefs and other members, which would have the authority to overrule elected governments if there is an impasse. Critics have called it a way for Thailand's generals to stage a future coup without mobilising a single soldier.
Mr Prayut, meanwhile, is expected to unveil a new Cabinet line-up soon amid growing dissatisfaction about the economic performance of his government. The full-year economic growth forecast has been pared repeatedly to 3 per cent, as a result of weak exports and domestic demand.