Pressure on Thailand's embattled government mounted yesterday, when a flagship rice-buying scheme vital to its support stumbled closer to collapse and the opposition filed legal challenges that could void a disrupted weekend election. The crisis in the rice scheme is a humiliating blow for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - it helped sweep her to power in 2011, but has become mired in allegations of corruption and growing losses that are making it increasingly hard to fund. The commerce minister said China had cancelled an order for 1.2 million tons of rice due to a corruption probe, while state-run Krung Thai Bank (KTB) joined other lenders in saying that it would not provide loans urgently needed to rescue it. Protesters succeeded in disrupting voting in a fifth of constituencies in Sunday's election. The incomplete poll means Yingluck could head a caretaker administration for months, unable to make policy decisions, while demonstrators continue to block parts of the capital as they have been since November. The opposition Democrat Party boycotted the election and yesterday filed challenges to its legality. It is also trying to get Yingluck's Puea Thai Party disbanded for holding the vote under abnormal circumstances, with Bangkok under a state of emergency. "We will argue that the election violated the constitution," spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said. "In a separate petition, we will file for the dissolution of the Puea Thai Party ." The Democrats' last spell in power, between 2008 and 2011, came after the courts banned a previous ruling party loyal to Yingluck's elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. The rice programme was one of the populist policies pioneered by Thaksin, a former prime minister central to a stubborn conflict that has divided Thais for at least eight years. He was toppled by the military in 2006. Losses to the taxpayer, estimated at 200 billion baht (R64bn) a year, have fuelled protests against Yingluck's government, and payment problems now risk alienating farmers at the heart of her support base in the poorer north and north-east. The anti-government demonstrators, mostly from Bangkok and the south, say Yingluck is Thaksin's puppet and the costly giveaways that won his parties every election since 2001 are tantamount to vote-buying using taxpayers' money. They say Thaksin's new political order is tainted by graft and cronyism and want an appointed "people's council" to replace Yingluck and overhaul a political system hijacked by her brother, who lives in exile to avoid a jail term for graft. Yingluck and her government are being investigated by an anti-graft panel for alleged irregularities in the rice scheme. That and other cases going through Thailand's politicised courts could dissolve her Puea Thai Party and ban top officials. - Reuters The Mercury
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