BANGKOK (AFP) — Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's five-month-old government was in disarray Thursday after the foreign minister resigned following a series of bruising court defeats for the cabinet.
Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama became the third top official in the ruling People Power Party (PPP) forced out of office in less than 48 hours.
The party's deputy leader Yongyut Tiyapairat, who was a former speaker of parliament, was banned from politics for five years on Tuesday, after the Supreme Court upheld vote buying charges against him.
The following day, health minister Chiya Sasomsub was removed from office by another top court, which found he had illegally concealed his wife's assets.
But Noppadon's court loss carries potentially damning implications for Thailand's entire government.
The Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that Noppadon and the entire cabinet had violated the charter by not seeking parliamentary approval for a deal with Cambodia over a disputed temple on the border.
The deal signed by Noppadon was approved by the cabinet and military chiefs, supporting Cambodia's bid to seek World Heritage status for the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple.
The verdict sparked public calls for the entire cabinet to resign, and the opposition Democrat Party said it might launch an impeachment process.
"We think that Prime Minister Samak may be the next one to be impeached," said party whip Sathit Wongnongtoei.
Noppadon said he hoped his resignation would spare the rest of the government.
"I want to see national reconciliation," he said in remarks broadcast on national television. "I insist that I have done nothing wrong. I have not sold the country out."
Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee said Samak would likely unveil a cabinet reshuffle within two weeks to fill the vacant seats.
"The cabinet reshuffle will take place because three ministers have resigned," he told reporters.
Beyond Noppadon and Chiya, a minister attached to the prime minister's office resigned in May after being accused of insulting Thailand's revered king.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University said Noppadon's resignation might ease the immediate pressure on the government, but said Samak needed to consider major changes in cabinet.
"If it is a major overhaul of the cabinet configuration, it can buy Samak some time," he said.
Samak's government is closely aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the military in 2006 following months of protests.
Noppadon was Thaksin's personal lawyer until he was tapped to lead the foreign ministry.
Samak's victory in elections last December had raised hope for an end to more than two years of political turmoil that have battered the Thai economy.
Instead, it reopened the gaping social divide that had marked the Thaksin era, pitting his mainly poor and rural supporters against the Bangkok elite.
Nearly seven weeks ago, the same royalist protesters that had rallied against Thaksin returned to the streets, demanding Samak's resignation.
The so-called People's Alliance for Democracy is now calling for major changes to Thai democracy, saying 70 percent of parliamentarians should be appointed to their post.
The demand highlights the stark political reality that if Samak were to dissolve parliament and call new elections, Thaksin's supporters would likely win again, analysts say.
The political turmoil has weakened investment in Thailand at a time of soaring inflation and weak economic growth.
The instability has battered the Thai stock market, with share prices on the main Stock Exchange of Thailand index down more than 17 percent since the protests broke out.
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