By: Our Correspondent

Thailand's military-backed government, which endured weeks of chaos from
tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters in April and May, now faces
possible collapse from possible court action because of corruption cases
involving illegal campaign donations and raising the distinct
possibility of a vacuum at the top of the country’s uneasy political
pyramid.

The Democrat Party and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
appear to be caught in the coils of laws passed in 2007 to keep the
fugitive former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and top members of his
political cabal out of office.

Abhisit , who took office in
December of 2008 by what democracy advocates charge was a process rigged
to perpetuate the Bangkok elite in power, said he hopes he and the
Democrats will escape termination if found guilty by Thailand's powerful
Constitutional Court, which received the corruption cases from
aggressive prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney-General. Abhisit
was not the party leader when the alleged violations took place.

"We
will respect, and follow, the decision of the court," the soft-spoken
prime minister said. The charges involve allegations of illegal
donations worth more than US$8 million in 2005 from a major cement
corporation, TPI Polene, to the Democrats, and other allegations that
the party misused a grant worth about US$900,000 from the Election
Commission's political development fund.

Illegal donations and
the misuse of the commission's money violate the Political Party Act,
which ironically was orchestrated in 2007 by the 2006 coup-installed
junta to punish Thaksin and 100 of his party's executives. If found
guilty in either case, the prime minister and other Democrat Party
executives reportedly hope to convince the court to agree to a loophole
based on the illegality of retroactive punishment – although they
earlier advocated that retroactive punishment was permitted to get at
Thaksin and his supporters.

When the alleged offences were
committed by the Democrats in 2005, conviction for corruption by a
political party's top executives, or the misuse of funds, could result
in the party's liquidation under a 1998 Political Party Act. But in
2007, that punishment for both offenses was expanded to include banning
the guilty political party's top executives from government office for
five years.

The Democrat Party was expected to argue that any
violations it may have committed in 2004 and 2005 should not be subject
to the increased punishments, which came into effect in 2007.

If
the current coalition government's Democrat Party is convicted in either
case under the 1998 version of the act, and is dissolved, Abhisit and
his top executives could, in theory, jump into a newly created political
party and attempt to somehow stay in power. Parliamentarians could
then make backroom deals to unite behind the new party, and either keep
Abhisit as prime minister or replace him with an ally.

The
Constitutional Court, however, has previously ruled twice that the 2007
Act was valid retroactively and dissolved two other political parties.
If the Democrat Party is indeed dissolved, the toppled politicians may
try to staff a newly invented party, using Democrat Party executives who
were not in top slots when the alleged offenses occurred. One of those
legally unsullied Democrat Party members, in a new party, could then
possibly be slotted into the prime minister's chair.

A new party
named Thai Khem Khaeng ("Strong Thailand") was registered on June 4,
prompting
speculation in the Thai media that the Democrat Party was
behind the move.

The court has scheduled August 9 as an initial
hearing date in the case involving a misuse of funds, with the
multi-million-dollar donation case expected to begin a few weeks later,
in a separate trial.
The Attorney-General's prosecutors reportedly
demanded the banning of about 40 Democrat Party executives for five
years because they held power in 2004 and 2005 when the illegal
donations were allegedly paid.

Abhisit, now 46, was a Democrat
Party executive at that time, starting as deputy party leader in 2004,
and as the party's leader from March 2005. But until Abhisit took over
the Democrat Party in 2005, the leader was Banyat Bantadtan, who
presided during both alleged violations.

"These dissolution
cases have already shaken public confidence in the country's oldest
political party," said Thai Rath newspaper on July 18), referring to the
Democrat Party. "With eroding public confidence, the coalition
government finds it hard to maintain political stability."

Government
corruption torments this Buddhist majority Southeast Asian nation, and
is frequently exposed in front-page scandals which occasionally come to
trial, with mixed results.

"Taking action against corrupt state
agencies is a problem when the private sector is reluctant to provide
confirmation of the kickbacks,” Abhisit said on July 16, in response to
separate complaints by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Board of
Trade about government officials demanding bribes from private
companies.

"The private sector appears submissive and tolerant of
the acts, rather than risking putting itself at odds with state
agencies by pointing the finger at them," Abhisit added.

The
prime minister and the military are meanwhile displaying a public show
of unity after defeating on May 19 a nine-week insurrection by
anti-government "terrorist" Red Shirts. During April and May, scattered
clashes between the army and Red Shirts left 90 people dead, most of
them civilians, and more than 1,000 injured. The military used armored
personnel carriers and assault rifles to finally clear the Reds'
barricades from central Bangkok's streets, who retaliated by burning
down a flock of buildings in Central Bangkok and trashing shopping
centers..

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda is widely
perceived as supporting Abhisit. It looks likely that Poajinda, who
retires on Oct. 1, will be succeeded by Deputy Army Commander-in-Chief
Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, who is expected to take a harder line than
Anupong, who despite the shooting in May is regarded by his colleagues
and Thai analysts as a relatively dovish commander who was reluctant to
use the heavy firepower against the Red Shirts' barricades, because he
wanted to retire without his countrymen's blood on his hands.

The
Red Shirts' insurrection failed in its bid to force an immediate
dissolution of Parliament, and a nationwide election, which could have
brought back Thaksin, who remains extremely popular in the impoverished
northern area of the country. He was ousted in a royalist-backed 2006
military coup staged by Anupong and other top generals that has led to
nearly four years of political chaos in the country. The generals later
granted themselves amnesty for pulling off the putsch.

The rising
Gen. Prayuth, 56, is widely regarded as hawkish, especially against
Thaksin, and is expected to oppose any Red Shirt attempts to form a new
government. If the government collapses because of the corruption
trials, any new leader will need to consider the support of Anupong and
Prayuth, given that the military has unleashed 18 coups and attempted
coups since the 1930s, whenever it felt displeased.

The military
now appears pleased that Abhisit increased the defense budget and
generously allowed controversial weapons procurement contracts.

"Since
the army is the only tool the Abhisit government has against former
prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts, there is no
question it has to keep the military happy," the English-language
Bangkok Post reported earlier this month. The politicized military also
wields a lucrative and influential media arm, owning more than 200
radio frequencies, a TV station and a TV channel's concession.

Richard
S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist His web page is
http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com