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Originally published May 8, 2014 at 5:54 AM | Page modified May 8, 2014 at 10:26 AM

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New leader, same impasse for troubled Thailand

After six months of political protests, Thailand has a new prime minister -- the old one was booted out by the Constitutional Court. For most countries, that would be a major event heralding change.


Associated Press

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BANGKOK —

After six months of political protests, Thailand has a new prime minister -- the old one was booted out by the Constitutional Court. For most countries, that would be a major event heralding change.

But for this deeply divided country, Wednesday's ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra does little to resolve the complex political crisis that largely pits the nation's rural poor majority against its urban middle and upper class. The protesters who have been rallying against her are not satisfied. They also want her party removed from power, a prospect that could elicit a fierce response from her supporters.

Yingluck's removal after nearly three years in office may even intensify the political gridlock -- more bad news for Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

Here is a look at the scenarios that could play out:

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FEARS OF VIOLENCE

Bangkok is bracing for two days of competing street rallies. Violence is a possibility.

On Friday, anti-government protesters who earlier this year shut down key intersections around the capital have called for a massive "final mission" in central Bangkok. They won a partial victory from the court ruling that ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet members, but protest leaders want to "remove the last remnants of her government."

So far, Yingluck's so-called Red Shirt supporters, many of whom hail from the rural north and northeast, have held few big protests of their own since anti-government protesters launched their movement in November, but on Saturday they plan their own mass rally on the western outskirts of Bangkok.

The two rallies are on different days and several kilometers (miles) apart but the capital is concerned, nonetheless. At least 24 people have died and more than 700 have been hurt in gunfights, drive-by shootings and grenade attacks since the protests began. Both sides say they reject violence, but both employ thuggish "guards," some of whom carry guns.

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PHASE TWO OF THE 'MISSION'

Almost from the start, the protesters had two key demands. One was to force out Yingluck, whom they viewed as a puppet of her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The other was to install an unelected government that would oversee reforms they say are needed before fair elections can be held.

Thaksin is the central figure in Thailand's political crisis even though he was ousted in 2006 and has lived outside the country for years to avoid being jailed for corruption charges.

In ousting Yingluck, the Constitutional Court achieved what the protesters could not. It ruled she had abused her power by transferring a senior civil servant to another post in 2011 to promote her former brother-in-law. Her Cabinet quickly named a deputy premier, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, as acting prime minister.

She received another blow Thursday when an anti-graft commission indicted her on charges of dereliction of duty for her role in a rice subsidy program that has accumulated losses of at least $4.4 billion and drawn allegations of corruption. Though she already has been removed as prime minister, she faces Senate impeachment proceedings that could ban her from holding political office for five years.

While the court ruling cheered Yingluck's opponents, it was widely viewed as another move in Thailand's game of politics rather than an enforcement of the rule of law.

The protesters want an interim, unelected government to implement vaguely defined reforms to fight corruption -- and to remove the Shinawatra family's influence from politics. Critics at home and abroad call the idea unconstitutional and undemocratic.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban reveled Wednesday in Yingluck's removal.

"Their head is gone. They are like a headless ghost," Suthep told cheering crowds. "We have to fight until we win."

"Our mission has a little more left," he said. "We only have to get rid of this headless ghost."

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AN ELECTION, MAYBE

Parliamentary elections are planned for July but it remains unclear if they will take place.

In his first remarks as the new caretaker prime minister, Niwattumrong vowed that holding the election was his main priority. Once a new government is elected, his interim role will end, he said.

The trouble is that nobody expects elections will solve Thailand's problems.

Parties allied to Thaksin have won every election since 2001, and if the ruling Pheu Thai party wins the next poll, as is expected, the cycle of protests will likely continue.

Yingluck, who won an overwhelming victory in 2011, tried to defuse the latest round of political tension by dissolving the Parliament in December and calling snap elections for Feb. 2. She was expected to win but her opponents on the street disrupted the polls, which were then invalidated by the Constitutional Court, the same court that ousted her Wednesday.

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THE THAKSIN DILEMMA

Out with one of Thaksin's proxies, and in with another.

Just as Yingluck was accused of being her brother's stooge, Niwattumrong will face the same accusations.

He worked for Shinawatra-family telecommunications companies for two decades, holding several executive positions, before turning to politics after Yingluck won the 2011 election. A political unknown, he was rewarded with the important portfolio of Commerce Minister.

The choice of Niwattumrong as acting leader does not bode well for Thai politics, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the country's leading political scientists. "He lacks stature and is seen as an underling of Yingluck and her brother," he said, writing in Thursday's edition of The Bangkok Post. Thitinan said other choices would have been "less of a lightning rod."



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