Thailand's prime minister was forced to resign along with his cabinet on Tuesday after the country's Constitutional Court ruled that he had violated the constitution by hosting TV cooking shows.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's supporters vowed to bring him back to power, indicating that Thailand is still not free from its deep political crisis that has virtually paralyzed the government, spooked the financial markets and scared away tourists.
"The defendant has violated Article 267 of the constitution, and his position as prime minister has ended," the head of the nine-judge panel, Chat Chonlaworn, said in Bangkok.
He said the cabinet will remain in a caretaker position until a new administration is installed.
The judgment, broadcast live on television and radio, was greeted with loud cheers and claps from Samak's opponents, who have occupied his office compound since Aug. 26 to demand his resignation.
Samak, a self-proclaimed foodie, hosted a popular television cooking show — Tasting and Complaining — for seven years before becoming prime minister. But he also made several appearances after taking office, breaking a constitutional prohibition on private employment while in office.
"His employment at the company can be considered an employment," Chat said.
He said Samak gave "conflicting testimony" and that there was an attempt to fabricate evidence "to hide his actions."
Before the court began its session, Samak had said he would honour the verdict. He was not immediately available for comment.
The verdict brings to a stunning climax weeks of political uncertainty in the country, starting with the occupation of his office complex by thousands of members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, a loose-knit group of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists.
They accuse Samak of corruption and of serving as a proxy for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup following street demonstrations, also led by the alliance.
The alliance members also accuse Thaksin of corruption and violating the constitution.
"Today, Mr. Samak looks to have hit a dead end on his political road," the Bangkok Post said.
Samak had refused to resign or call fresh elections. But the court ruling could give him an opportunity to make a graceful exit without losing face.
However, his supporters in the six-party ruling coalition he heads say they intend to re-nominate him as prime minister in the new cabinet. The Thai parliament will meet Friday to vote on a new prime minister, and all parties can nominate candidates.
Karn Tienkaew, deputy leader of Samak's People's Power Party, characterized the court ruling as a "small legal matter" and said the party planned to meet later in the day Tuesday and hoped to propose a parliamentary vote Wednesday on returning Samak to power.
"Samak still has legitimacy. The party still hopes to vote him back unless he says no. Otherwise we have many other capable candidates."
It is not clear whether this would again violate the constitution, and such a move could also inflame supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy.
In his defence, Samak had claimed that he was not an employee of the company that made the show and only received payment for his transportation and the ingredients used for cooking.
Sakchai Khaewwaneesakul, the managing director of the company that produced the show, said he paid the prime minister $560 per show for incidental expenses.
Samak is also facing other legal problems — the Election Commission has recommended that his party be dissolved for vote fraud, and he faces a defamation suit and three possible corruption cases.