Bangkok: Thailand`s Constitutional Court said it will rule in an abuse of power case against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Wednesday, with a guilty verdict likely to force her from office and possibly bring her supporters on to the streets.
That could lead to confrontation with anti-government groups who have been protesting in the capital, Bangkok, for six months in a bid to topple Yingluck and who disrupted a general election in February that she had been expected to win.
The crisis broadly pits Bangkok`s middle class and royalist establishment against the mainly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid a jail term handed down in 2008 for abuse of power.
Yingluck defended herself in court on Tuesday against a charge relating to her transfer of National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri in 2011, which opponents say was designed to benefit her Puea Thai Party and a family member.
She said the decision to transfer the security chief was made by a committee of ministers.
"I did not interfere in the decision process ... which should be for the benefit of the land," Yingluck told the court."I have never benefited from any transfer of civil servants."
Some legal experts say her entire government will have to go if she is forced to step down, but her party rejects that. She has led a caretaker administration with limited powers since dissolving parliament in December ahead of the election.
"We believe cabinet must continue its caretaker duties until a new cabinet replaces it. There is no reason why the whole cabinet should go with her," Noppadon Pattama, a legal adviser to Thaksin, told Reuters.
"That would be like carrying out a double execution."
DECADE OF UNREST
The months of street protests have undermined Yingluck`s government but she has clung on and the number of protesters has dwindled.
However, tension is rising again as she faces a series of court cases to be heard by what her supporters say is a politicised judiciary.
Both her "red shirt" supporters and the anti-government protesters plan large rallies in or around Bangkok next week.
Yingluck`s ousting would be the latest twist in nearly a decade of confrontation between supporters of Thaksin and the Bangkok-based royalist establishment who see Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon, as a threat to their interests and accuse him of corruption and nepotism.
Security chief Thawil was transferred to the post of adviser to the prime minister in 2011 and has since argued that his transfer was to benefit the Shinawatras and their extended family.
He was replaced by then national police chief Wichien Podposri, whose position as police chief was later given to Priewpan Damapong, a brother-in-law of Thaksin.
Thawil was reinstated in March but the Constitutional Court accepted the abuse of power case brought against Yingluck by 27 senators.
Amongst other charges Yingluck faces is one of dereliction of duty over a state rice-buying scheme that critics say is riddled with corruption and has run up huge losses.
This charge was brought by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is expected to deliver its ruling this month. A guilty verdict here would also force Yingluck from office and she could in addition face a five-year ban from politics.
Efforts to end the protracted political crisis meanwhile have come to nothing.
Proposals by opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva for a six-month delay to a general election planned for July to allow time for political and electoral reforms have been rejected by both the Puea Thai Party and leaders of the anti-government movement.
Six months of political street protests, sparked by a bungled bid to push through an amnesty that could have allowed Thaksin to return, have so far failed to force Yingluck from office.
At least 25 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in political violence, raising fears of widespread unrest if she is dumped from office.
Observers say the legal challenges appear poised to upend her administration, raising the potential for a backlash by her "Red Shirt" supporters.
Yingluck has also been charged by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) with neglect of duty in connection with a costly rice subsidy scheme that critics say fomented rampant corruption.
If indicted on those charges, Yingluck would be suspended from office and face an impeachment vote in the upper house of parliament that could lead to a five-year ban from politics.
The Red Shirts have vowed to take to the streets if Yingluck is toppled, raising the spectre of clashes with security forces.
"But as of now, it remains impossible to know whether the Red Shirts will offer as much resistance as some of their leaders claim," said Michael Montesano at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The Constitutional Court in March nullified a February general election disrupted by protesters, leaving the kingdom in legislative limbo with only a caretaker government.
Election authorities and the ruling party have agreed on July 20 for new polls, but the date has been rejected by the opposition Democrat Party, casting doubts over its likely success.