A 'Red Shirt' supporter holds a picture of of ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra while waiting for the verdict in a negligence trial involving Yingluck at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, September 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

The long-anticipated criminal conviction of ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, now in hiding after fleeing overseas last month, promises to once again reset Thailand’s military-dominated politics.

Bangkok’s Supreme Court for Political Office Holders decided today that Yingluck was guilty of negligence in handling her coup-ousted government’s controversial rice price support policy, a boondoggle scheme which resulted in billions of dollars worth of state losses. The court sentenced the ex-leader in absentia to five years in prison, half the maximum sentence allowed under Thai law.

News reports said less than 100 ‘Red Shirt’ supporters gathered in front of the court, substantially less than the thousands that turned out for previous hearings, including the August 25 original verdict date that Yingluck skipped upon fleeing the country. The small turnout precluded the possibility for street level instability, though there is still potential for a shadowy response.

Yingluck has not made any public statement since fleeing Thailand. Her political supporters say she is either in London or Dubai, where her self-exiled, ex-premier elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra is known to maintain luxury residences. Dubai authorities have said they have no records of her arrival in the emirate; United Kingdom officials have been mum.

A T-shirt with portraits of ousted former Thai prime minister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra is pictured at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, August 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Before the verdict, coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s regime had pointed to Yingluck’s flight from justice as proof she was guilty as charged, providing new ballast to the junta’s narrative that her camp’s politicians are corrupt and driven more by personal than national motivations. Yingluck plead innocent to the charges.

On August 26, the court handed down harsh decades-long prison sentences to Yingluck’s former commerce minister and his deputy, both of whom have been refused bail. Yingluck had indicated before her conviction she was willing to go to prison on principle, a martyr vow she apparently abandoned closer to the verdict’s reading.

Still, it’s not immediately clear the verdict will accelerate the junta’s long delayed time table for holding new elections and restoring a form of democracy. Yingluck was already disqualified from running for office at new polls based on a court ruling related to an unlawful bureaucratic transfer in the days leading up to the May 2014 coup.

Her Peua Thai party will now likely be led by deputy leader Sudarat Keyuraphan, a less populist, more process-oriented Bangkok politician who insiders say has the backing of party patron ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra but not necessarily the party’s rank and file machine politicians. Sudarat has taken a more conciliatory tack towards the junta than many stalwart Peua Thai members.

Under the military’s new constitution, passed in a national referendum in August 2016 and royally endorsed with amendments this April, new polls must be held 150 days after parliamentary passage and royal endorsement of still pending election-related laws on political parties and an appointed Senate.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand June 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

The military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee and rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly are legally allowed 360 days since the new charter’s promulgation to draft, pass and review the election laws. The monarch is allowed another 90 days to review the laws before either endorsing or rejecting them.

Junta representatives insist the country is headed back to democracy, though the junta’s second-ranking official defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan has recently vacillated in public statements on whether the polls would be held in late 2018 or 2019.

Prayuth has likewise sent mixed signals. While frequently questioning the wisdom of holding new polls that return to power the same corrupt elected politicians he overthrew in a coup, the premier has simultaneously ramped up his grass roots and rural-based activities in recent weeks, in what some analysts have viewed as de facto election campaigning.

While Prayuth is not expected to run for elected office, he could be appointed to the premiership by the military-controlled Senate in an election result where no single party wins a majority of parliament’s lower house, a likely scenario under new election rules. Army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart is also viewed as a potential appointed premier.

Prayuth’s regime is in the process of ramping up fiscal spending, seen in his Cabinet’s approval yesterday for nearly two trillion baht (US$60 billion) worth of state enterprise investments in fiscal 2018, more than thrice the 580 billion allocated this year, in what could be a bid to manufacture a feel-good economic boost to coincide with polls while countering Peua Thai’s reputation for steering fast growth.

A military-led economic uptick would also notably coincide with the lifting of a year-long period of national mourning for the death of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose royal cremation ceremony is scheduled for October 26, and opening of a new reign. A date has not yet been set for new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun’s coronation, though it’s expected in Thailand’s December or January cool season and at a time when global monarchs are available to attend.

A military officer takes a photo as a television screen shows Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun on December 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Athit Perawongmetha

There are still certain concerns about the father-to-son transition in maintaining the institution’s revered status and symbolic centrality. The new king has imposed a new martial order to various royal institutions, a fast and firm consolidation of his reign that has simultaneously rewarded loyalists and ruffled feathers of certain royalists associated more with the old palace.

It’s not clear yet that process, expected to accelerate after the coronation, will have implications for stability. Eyebrows raised among Bangkok diplomats when a Twitter account associated with a top royal family member appeared to endorse an August 29 Thaksin tweet that quoted a French philosopher saying: “There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”

Thaksin’s social media message was thinly veiled criticism of the August 25 harsh convictions handed Yingluck’s ministers, viewed by Peua Thai supporters as politically motivated, and her secret departure into self-exile. Thaksin’s Twitter page’s backdrop features a golden portrait of new King Vajiralongkorn.

Thaksin’s response to Yingluck’s actual conviction is still a wildcard. People familiar with Thaksin’s recent thinking say that he still prefers to contest the next polls, despite the military’s assured overarching political role and a likely Senate-appointed premier, and intends to field the party again under a Shinawatra family banner. One recent poll showed Thaksin’s popularity still outstripped Prayuth’s rising strongman brand.

Installed to restore stability after years of debilitating street protests, and with a still incomplete delicate royal transition, the junta still has various security-related reasons it could agitate or cite to push back polls. And with Yingluck now a fugitive from justice, no immediate popular groundswell against her conviction, and less international pressure than previously to stage speedy elections, Prayuth will continue to steer the country’s politics as he sees fit and safe – and at his own pace.

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