Former Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra could be impeached and banned from politics for five years, after the country's anti- graft agency ruled that she was negligent in a controversial government rice-buying scheme.
Yesterday's indictment, which came a day after she and nine caretaker ministers were forced out of office by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power, has emboldened and enraged supporters on both sides of the political struggle. This raises fears of a confrontation as rival groups hold mass rallies in Bangkok from today.
Meanwhile, the National Anti- Corruption Commission is also looking into the possibility of filing criminal charges against Ms Yingluck, which could result in her facing jail time.
Yesterday's verdict centred on a three-year-old rice purchase scheme under which the government bought rice from farmers at about 50 per cent above the market price to boost their incomes. The scheme was a key campaign pledge of Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai party in the 2011 elections, which it won by a landslide.
It resulted in 136 billion baht (S$5.2 billion) in losses in the 2011 to 2012 crop year. State warehouses filled up with unsold grain, and the kingdom subsequently lost its position as the top rice exporter.
Ms Yingluck, who was nominally head of the National Rice Policy Committee, was judged to be negligent in the expensive scheme.
The case will now be considered by the Senate, in session until tomorrow. If three-fifths of the 150-member body vote to impeach her, she could be banned from politics for five years.
But she may survive the vote as the majority of the Senate is considered pro-Puea Thai. "It will be quite difficult" to impeach her, said Puea Thai's former legislator Jarupan Kuldiloke.
The benchmark SET Index yesterday shed 1.68 per cent.
The country's six-month-long political crisis is the latest bout in an almost decade-long struggle that pits the royalist establishment and urban middle class against supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of Ms Yingluck. He was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to evade a graft-related jail term.
Puea Thai's supporters allege that the country's courts and independent organisations are conspiring with protesters to topple the government and put in place an appointed administration.
Protesters' sabotage of the Feb 2 General Election - and the Constitutional Court's subsequent annulment of it - has put the country in political limbo. The Election Commission has appeared reluctant to proceed with plans for new polls on July 20.
The caretaker government's remaining ministers swiftly reorganised themselves yesterday, with Acting Premier Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan assuming economic affairs responsibilities.
The security authorities, meanwhile, prepared for mass marches today by the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which has asked its supporters to gather at a Bangkok park in preparation for an undisclosed operation. Some fear it may take over key government offices, as it did early this year.
PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan said "the key remains with the civil servants", who have been urged not to take any more orders from the caretaker government.
In response, pro-government "red shirt" supporters will mass on Bangkok's outskirts tomorrow.