A court ousted Thailand's prime minister on Wednesday for abuse of power, accomplishing what anti-government demonstrators have sought to do for the past six months and further widening the country's sharp political divide.
Supporters of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called for a huge rally Saturday to protest the ruling by the Constitutional Court, which exercised powers laid out in a constitution written by a military government after a coup in 2006.
The leader of the anti-government protesters, Suthep Thaugsuban, meanwhile, told his followers that they would stage a "final offensive" on Friday and would achieve their goal of fully ousting the government.
The court found Yingluck guilty of abusing her power by transferring the National Security Council chief in 2011 to another position. It ruled that the transfer was carried out to benefit her politically powerful family and, therefore, violated the constitution — an accusation she has denied.
The ruling also forced out nine Cabinet members but left nearly two dozen others in their posts, including Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who was appointed the new acting leader.
Yingluck appeared on television two hours after the verdict to thank her supporters, emphasize that she was an elected leader and assert her innocence.
"We held true to the principles of honesty in running the country, and never acted corruptly, as we were accused," said Yingluck, 46, who swept to power nearly three years ago as the country's first female prime minister.
'If an illegal prime minister steps in, we will fight. If there's a coup, we will fight.' - Yingluck supporter Jatuporn Prompan
During the past six months, Yingluck's supporters, the Red Shirts, have generally steered clear of provoking her opponents, who have been blocking government ministries and conducting street protests in the capital. Still, more than 20 people have been killed and hundreds injured since November in sporadic gun battles, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks.
Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said Saturday's rally will be a show of strength, but that further attempts to dislodge the government will be met with force.
"Our stance has been clear," he said. "If an illegal prime minister steps in, we will fight. If there's a coup, we will fight."
Thailand's long-running political crisis began in 2006 when Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup after protests that accused him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
A military government after the coup rewrote the constitution, giving extensive powers to the courts and to agencies outside the Cabinet's authority in an attempt to reduce executive and legislative power.
Courts seen as anti-Thaksin
Thailand's courts, like its military, are seen as bastions of anti-Thaksin conservatism, and have a record of hostile rulings toward Thaksin's political machine, which is fuelled by billions of dollars that he made as a telecommunications tycoon.
Analysts said Wednesday's ruling further sullied the courts' reputation.
"The credibility of the justice system has vaporized," said Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin. "The royalist conservatives may celebrate this judicial coup. But the world will mourn over the death of another democracy."
Yingluck is despised by Bangkok's elite and middle class as a puppet of her brother. But she and her Pheu Thai party remain highly popular among the country's poor majority, particularly in the north and northeast.
Her opponents have been demanding that she step down to make way for an interim unelected government that would remove her family's influence from politics.
Thaksin's supporters say the Thai establishment opposes him because their position of privilege has been threatened by his electoral popularity, cemented by populist programs that benefited the less well-off in the countryside.
Ruling casts doubts on July elections
Wednesday's ruling casts doubts on whether new elections planned for July will be held, following polls in February that were disrupted by the protesters and then invalidated by the court.
In 2007, the Constitutional Court made a landmark ruling dissolving Thaksin's original Thai Rak Thai party for fraud in a 2006 election, and banned its executives from politics for five years. Thaksin went into self-imposed exile in 2008 to escape a two-year jail sentence for conflict of interest while prime minister.
Thaksin's allies in late 2007 handily won the first post-coup election, but the Constitutional Court in 2008 kicked out two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers in rulings on controversial legal grounds.
A coalition government then cobbled together by the opposition Democrat Party had to use the army to put down pro-Thaksin demonstrations in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead in street battles, but Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party won a sweeping majority in a mid-2011 general election.
Opposition senators lodged Wednesday's case with the Constitutional Court over the transfer of National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri. He was replaced by the national police chief, who in turn was replaced by a Thaksin relative.
"Transferring government officials must be done in accordance with moral principle," the court said in its ruling, read aloud on live television for almost 90 minutes. "Transferring with a hidden agenda is not acceptable."
Yingluck's fortunes plunged late last year when her party used shady legislative tactics to try to ram through a law that would have given an amnesty to political offenders of the previous eight years, including Thaksin. The move ignited mass anti-government demonstrations.
Seeking to ease the pressure, Yingluck in December dissolved the lower house and called elections for Feb. 2. But her opponents on the street disrupted the polls.