BANGKOK, Thailand – Anti-government demonstrators in Thailand declared victory Tuesday and said they will end their occupation of the country’s two main airports after a court decision forced the country’s prime minister from office.
While an estimated 300,000 travelers stranded by last week’s airport takeovers breathed a bit easier, the question of who will hold power in a democratic Thailand remained unanswered.
The protesters — who seek to eliminate the one-person, one-vote system — left open the possibility of more unrest saying they will return to the streets if political change does not occur. At least six people have been killed and scores injured in clashes in recent months.
Also unclear was the extent of damage the week long airport blockade inflicted on the country’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism.
But none of that seemed to matter Tuesday as members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which led the protest, reveled at the fall of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
“We will party all night long before leaving tomorrow,” said Saisuri Pantupradij, a 45-year-old woman who camped out at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. “It’s sad to say goodbye, but our job here is done. So we must go home.”
She and four other women, all wearing yellow feather boas, were dancing and singing karaoke to a Thai folk song in the main hall of the airport terminal.
Around them, thousands celebrated, waving Thailand’s red white and blue flag, and cheering their nation, their king and themselves.
Still, the protest alliance, which crippled the country’s administration by occupying the offices of the prime minister three months ago and saw the courts sack two prime ministers it campaigned against, vowed to resume its militant actions if future developments displeased them.
The group is seeking to purge the nation of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they accuse of massive corruption and seeking to undermine the country’s revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was ousted by a September 2006 military coup.
On Tuesday, the country’s Constitutional Court found Somchai’s People’s Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections that brought the coalition to power.
“Dishonest political parties undermine Thailand’s democratic system,” said Constitutional Court President Chat Chalavorn.
The ruling sent Somchai, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties into political exile and barred them from politics for five years. Of the 59, 24 are lawmakers who will have to abandon their parliamentary seats.
“It is not a problem. I was not working for myself. Now I will be a full-time citizen,” Somchai told reporters following the ruling.
The current coalition will remain in power. But Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul will become the caretaker prime minister, said Suparak Nakboonnam, a government spokeswoman. She said Parliament will have to pick a new prime minister within 30 days.
Somchai had become increasingly isolated in recent weeks. Neither the army, a key player in Thai politics, nor King Bhumibol offered firm backing. Palace circles have not hidden their enmity toward Thaksin and his allies, rattling a decades old consensus of absolute respect for the monarchy.
But lawmakers of the three dissolved parties who escaped the ban can join other parties, try to cobble together a new coalition and then choose a new prime minister. If their fragile unity fails, new elections are the likeliest outcome — with the chance that Thaksin’s allies would again triumph, setting off a whole new cycle of protests.
The alliance, often referred to by its acronym PAD, claims Thailand’s rural majority — who gave landslide election victories to the Thaksin camp — is too poorly educated to responsibly choose their representatives and says they are susceptible to vote buying.
It wants the country to abandon the system of one-man, one-vote, and instead have a mixed system in which most representatives are chosen by profession and social group. They have not explained exactly how such a system would work or what would make it less susceptible to manipulation.
“We’ve finished our job for now,” top protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul told reporters. “But if Thaksin’s puppets return, we will come back.”
The alliance’s rivals, government supporters who adore Thaksin for the generous social welfare policies his government implemented for the poor and rural majority when he was in power in 2001-2006, were angry, though uncertain what to do.
“People aren’t going to just sit and watch another elected government toppled. The court’s decision was wrong and we should question that,” said Pracha Niemjaroen, an electronics technician discussing politics with his friends at an open-air restaurant in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Some of Somchai’s political allies were less diffident. Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Thaksin Cabinet member, noted that the protest alliance had previously called for a non-elected government, and suggested that if they pressed for that, there could be civil war.
“Why do we still condone the PAD, who are waging terrorist attacks against government buildings and the democratic system?” he said. “Do all Thai people have to bow to the PAD’s orders and demands?”
Travelers were the only clear immediate beneficiaries of Tuesday’s developments, and even for them relief may not be so quick. Thai authorities have been running flights in and out of a naval air base at U-Tapao east of Bangkok, but its limited facilities left many travelers looking more like refugees than tourists.
Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, the chairman of the Airports of Thailand, said Suvarnabhumi international airport will resume operations Friday. He called the plan a birthday gift for King Bhumibol, who turns 81 on Dec. 5. The airport reopened to cargo flights Tuesday.
Hardships related to the severing of air links with Thailand’s capital have rippled through the country and the region. The government’s finance minister lowered the country’s GDP growth forecast from 4.5 percent to about 2 percent amid the turmoil earlier this week and the country’s Tourism Council predicted that up to 1 million workers could lose their jobs if foreign visitor numbers plunge by half next year as it now expects.
The orchid industry said it was losing $1 million a day and thousands of families who raise orchids face losing their livelihoods as exporters throw away thousands of the exotic blossoms that symbolize the country’s famed hospitality and beauty.
But travelers Jennifer Cooper, 37 and Peter Cooper, 45, from Melbourne, Australia, who were trapped for days at the airport took it all in stride.
“It was a free-for-all. People were behind the counters playing with the computers. They were everywhere, back in the duty-free area. Who knows what they did?” Peter said.
“We love Thailand,” said Jennifer.
“But when we come back we’ll have contingency plans for escaping,” she added, with a laugh.