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The Dark, Sordid History of the Court That Ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister

Thailand's Constitutional Court may have finally done what months of anti-government demonstrations failed to do -- unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In a ruling Wednesday, the court ordered Yingluck to step down, finding her guilty of abusing her power by transferring a senior civil servant to a new position in 2011 and freeing up another job for a relative, an accusation she denies. The court also ordered nine cabinet ministers to resign. The remaining members quickly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as interim leader.

The roots of Thailand's political crisis come down to simple math: Thailand's opposition Democratic Party does not have the votes to compete against Yingluck's Pheu Thai party, comprised primarily by rural and lower class voters from the north, at the polls. The Democrats, who led the demonstrations against Yingluck, have not won an election in almost 20 years.

In place of free and fair elections, opposition politicians have leaned on elite bureaucratic institutions -- the courts, the army, the crown -- to maintain their power. These institutions form the backbone of Thailand's traditional political establishment, whose authority is threatened by Yingluck's electoral majority.

For Yingluck's supporters, the ruling represents the latest effort by the opposition to oust the democratically-elected leader by underhanded means. Anti-government demonstrators, comprised primarily of southerners and urban elites, took to the streets in November 2013 in an attempt to unseat Yingluck and have battled the government in the streets for the better part of the last six months. But until now, they have had little success in achieving their goal of removing the Shinawatra family from the Thai political scene.

Few among these institutions have played such an outsized role in the current political crisis as the Constitutional Court. The court, as Dominic J. Nardi, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan, writes, "was not necessarily created with the altruistic goal of protecting fundamental rights. Rather, constitutional court justices serve to enforce the policy preferences of the political elites who appointed them -- a sort of ‘insurance policy' against populism or electoral defeat."

Indeed, the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck is only the latest example of the type of politicized judicial activism that has come to define the bench. The Constitutional Court, established in 1997 as an additional check on Thailand's various government branches, had a mixed record in its early years. It initially took an aggressive tack in combating official corruption, removing a number of politicians in graft probes during the late 1990s. The court actually exonerated Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, in a corruption case after he came to power in 2001 behind the same coalition of rural, lower-class voters who support his sister.

Yet in the mid-2000s the court became increasingly aligned with Thailand's traditional political power brokers. In 2006, after opposition politicians boycotted the vote, the court invalidated the electoral victory of then-Prime Minister Thaksin. Later that year, the army seized control of the government in a bloodless coup. Facing corruption charges, Thaksin left Thailand in self-imposed exile.

Thailand's military leaders established a new Constitutional Tribunal in the wake of their ascension to power. In 2007, the tribunal dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, alleging fraud in the 2006 election.

These decisions were only the beginning of a judicial effort to dismantle Thaksin's political machine. In 2008, the court removed Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally, because he allegedly accepted payments to be on a cooking show.

High-profile acquittals of leaders of the Democrat Party, the main opponents of the Shinawatra political dynasty, have hardly helped the court's reputation for issuing one-sided rulings. In 2010, the court dropped electoral fraud charges against then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his ruling Democrat Party.

In November 2013, the court ruled against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have changed the structure of the Senate. As currently structured, one half of the legislators in the 150-member body are appointed by judges and civil servants. The measure would have converted the chamber to a fully elected 200-member institution. The opposition Democrat Party petitioned the court to review the bill on the grounds that it gave too much power to Yingluck's Pheu Thai party, which maintains greater popular support.

After the decision, Supot Kaimook, one of the nine judges of the Constitutional Court, claimed the court was concerned about the rights of the minority. "Thailand's democratic system allows the majority to set the standard," he wrote. "But once it uses its power arbitrarily and suppresses the minority without listening to reason, this makes the majority lose its legitimacy."

This system, he asserted, could no longer be called "democratic." "It results in the tyranny of the majority," he said.

The court, it seems, can always be counted on to combat tyranny -- the kind of tyranny that will strip the Bangkok elite of their power, anyway.

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The Obscure Academic Feud at the Center of India's Elections

There are few accolades that Amartya Sen, the aging, brilliant Indian academic, hasn't attained. His country's most prominent public intellectual, the man is both a Nobel prize winner and that most unlikely of things: a rock-star economist. His lectures draw huge crowds; his mildest of pronouncements generate boldface headlines. But as he returned to India last week to cast his vote in the country's closely watched elections, it's tough to shake the impression that Sen is fighting something of a rear-guard action to defend his recent argument that India's stagnating economy needs not just a boost in growth but a renewed focus on improving its literacy rates and health-care system.

After having become embroiled in a bitter feud with Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist, over the future of India's economic future -- one that centered on whether economic growth or development indicators should be the government's measure of success -- Sen now finds himself perceived as allied with a losing political movement, the Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi. Because of his left-leaning economics, Sen has long been seen as a natural ally of Congress, whose policies, including the economic liberalization of the 1990s, have helped spur growth. But the sluggishness of the Indian economy and widespread corruption have resulted in a sense of disillusionment with left-wing economics, and Bhagwati's emphasis on improving the investment climate has been welcomed as a long-sought tonic.

That sentiment has come to be embodied on the political scene by Narendra Modi, who has embraced Bhagwati's ideas and is pitching himself as the reformer the country needs. Indians are currently casting their votes in marathon parliamentary elections, which conclude on May 16. Modi is widely favored to become the country's next prime minister.

Sen is no fan of Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who advocates a pro-market, pro-business agenda that is at times difficult to square with the Nobel laureate's focus on development outcomes. But in an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sen offered kind, if highly caveated words for the center-right candidate from Gujarat. "I am a great admirer of many things that Gujarat has done, not just under Narendra Modi, but even before," Sen said. "But, human development has not been among its better achievements. The percentage of literacy, the rate of infant mortality and extent of healthcare services in Gujarat are like those in a middling country."

Indeed, while India has posted impressive economic growth rates, the same can't be said of key development indicators. Just have a look at the growth of literacy rates, where India continues to lag behind China:

"No country in the world has achieved high rates of economic development and sustained growth of per capita income with an ill-educated and unhealthy labour force," Sen told the Hindustan Times.

The relationship between literacy rates and GDP per capita is one example of why Sen sees human development as key both to a good society and a vibrant economy. Below, India is circled in red and compared to other countries in South Asia.

On statistic after statistic, the story is much the same: While the gains are impressive, the reality remains deeply depressing. For example, between 2001 and 2012, India reduced the number of annual child deaths under the age of five from 2.5 million to 1.5 million. Still, India accounts for 20 percent the world's child mortality figures. And 48 percent of Indian children under five are chronically malnourished. That's an astounding figure.

Having served as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi has assembled a track-record of overseeing impressive economic growth, winning a reputation for his state as a hotbed of development and good governance. Running on a mostly free market platform, Modi is now pitching himself as the antithesis to India's ruling, center-left party.

That has put Sen in something of an awkward position. The country's leading intellectual is losing the domestic political argument:

While always a leading light of the Indian intellectual scene, Sen made a splashy return to the headlines last year amid an academic feud widely seen as a proxy for the election. With Sen on one side and Bhagwati on the other, the two men have carried out a bitter debate over the proper role of market reforms in India. Bhagwati argues India's poor investment climate is primarily to blame for a stagnating economy; Sen prefers to focus on the need for public projects, mostly education and infrastructure, to boost development indicators.

As a result, Sen, while reluctant to firmly endorse India's governing party, came to be seen as a natural ally of the Congress Party. Bhagwati, meanwhile, enthusiastically backed Modi, the reformer. And with Modi favored to take India's top office, it appears Bhagwati has finally gotten a bit of revenge on his colleague, against whom he harbors a fair share of resentment for his Nobel. (Bhagwati has been repeatedly passed over for the award, a sore point for the eminent economist.)

Bhagwati's argument is that while Sen's focus on improving the quality of life of ordinary Indians is certainly admirable, it fails to address the reality of India's economic circumstances. Before the country can lift the fortunes of its most impoverished citizens, India must first create greater wealth to spread among its people. "Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!" Bhagwati wrote last year.

Modi has aligned himself with that sentiment by promising to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of India's economy. In so doing, he has tapped into a deep desire among the country's strivers to join the middle class. Sen may have the Nobel, but Bhagwati has a politician willing to implement his economic ideas.

Bhagwati's revenge may determine the course of India's future.

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