A court found Thailand's prime minister guilty of violating the constitution on Wednesday and said she had to step down, throwing the country into further political turmoil, although ministers not implicated in her case can remain in office.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was charged with abusing her authority by transferring a senior civil servant in 2011 to another position. The court ruled that the transfer was carried out with a "hidden agenda" to benefit her politically powerful family and, therefore, violated the constitution, an accusation she has denied.
The ruling also forced out nine Cabinet members but left nearly two dozen others in their posts, including Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who was quickly appointed the new acting leader.
Looking relaxed, Yingluck appeared live on national television two hours after the verdict to thank her supporters, emphasize that she was an elected leader and assert her innocence.
"We held true to the principles of honesty in running the country, and never acted corruptly, as we were accused," said Yingluck, 46, who swept to power nearly three years ago as the country's first female prime minister.
While barely known outside Thailand, Niwattumrong has been in and around the fringes of Thai politics for years and has earned the trust of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's exiled brother and founder of a populist political juggernaut that has won every election for the past 13 years.
He was brought into politics to help neophyte Yingluck in 2011 as part of a team that crafted her public image and swept her to power in a landslide election win. He then served as a minister in her office, in charge of public relations and the media.
The court ruling marks the latest dramatic twist in Thailand's long-running political crisis. It was a victory for Yingluck's opponents, who for the past six months have been engaged in vociferous and sometimes violent street protests demanding she step down to make way for an interim unelected leader.
But it does little to resolve Thailand's political crisis, as it leaves the country in limbo — and primed for more violence. Since November, more than 20 have been killed and hundreds injured.
The ruling also casts doubt on whether new elections planned for July will take place, which would anger Yingluck's mostly rural supporters, who have called for a major rally Saturday in Bangkok.
It also remains far from clear whether her opponents will be able to achieve other measures they have demanded, including creating a reform council overseen by a leader of their choice who will carry out various steps to rid the country of corruption and what they say is money politics, including alleged vote buying.
Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party remain very popular among the country's poor majority, particularly in the north and northeast. But she is despised by Bangkok's middle and upper classes, who accuse her of being a puppet of her brother, a former prime minister and highly polarizing figure.
The campaign against Yingluck has been the latest chapter in Thailand's political upheaval that began when Thaksin was ousted by a 2006 military coup after protests accusing him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Since then, Thaksin's supporters and opponents have engaged in a power struggle that has on occasion turned bloody.