Prayut to continue as Thai prime minister after court rules his tenure is not up

The Constitutional Court ruled that Mr Prayut Chan-o-cha's term as premier is not over. PHOTO: AFP
Thai adviser to the prime minister Wira Rojanawat (centre) leaving the court after the verdict by the judgest. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Members of the media watching a broadcast of the judges announcing the verdict at the Constitutional Court. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will remain in his post after the country’s top court ruled on Friday that he has not exceeded the eight-year term limit.

The Constitutional Court declared that his term started in 2017, after the current Constitution replaced the post-coup provisional charter.

Mr Prayut, 68, had been temporarily suspended from premiership duties since Aug 24, as the court deliberated a petition by the main opposition party Pheu Thai to remove him from office.

The party argued that Mr Prayut had exceeded the eight-year tenure allowed under the 2017 Constitution, as he had become prime minister in August 2014.

The legal quandary was over when Mr Prayut’s term should be deemed to have started – in 2014 when he took office; in 2017 when the Constitution was enacted; or when he was elected at the 2019 national polls under the current Constitution.

In a six-to-three majority ruling on Friday, the court decided that Mr Prayut’s term started on April 6, 2017, when the present Constitution came into force.

It also said that his stint in office following the 2014 coup did not apply under this Constitution. Mr Prayut, then the junta chief, was installed as prime minister after staging a coup in May that year.

Shortly after the verdict, Mr Prayut said in a social media post that reflection during the past month has made him realise that he has to use the time left in this government’s tenure to “push forward” and complete the important projects he had initiated.

“I will put in my best effort and full potential,” he said in one of his first direct comments since his suspension in August.

“Even if some projects are completed during the time of other governments, they must be able to proceed smoothly, without any hurdles."

The court’s verdict means that Mr Prayut will be able to see Thailand through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in mid-November.

And if he is re-elected as premier following national polls that must be called by early 2023, he will be able to stay on as prime minister until 2025.

This means that he would not be able to serve the full new term, which is usually four years, analysts noted.

“It’s not a bright future for Prayut. Two years more isn’t a long time, especially because it means he will have to step down in the middle of the next term,” said Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat.

A television broadcast of the judges announcing the verdict on the legal dispute of Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha's eight-year premiership tenure at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Political lecturer Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang said: “There are already rumours that he might not run for the next election, since there is a chance that the Palang Pracharath Party may not field someone with a limited tenure.”

In Thailand, a premier is chosen by Parliament from a list of candidates nominated by political parties contesting in the general elections. Mr Prayut was the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party’s candidate in the 2019 election.

Analysts also say it is possible that Mr Prayut could serve the two years and hand it over to a successor to complete the term.

However, this raises the question as to who this successor might be.

Already, rumours are rife that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, who stood in as Thailand’s caretaker premier during Mr Prayut’s time-out, could be in the running.

Mr Prawit’s unflagging visits to flood-affected areas in Thailand and his vigorous showing at high-level meetings in the past month have had observers speculating that he is upping his profile.

A protester in Bangkok after the court's ruling. PHOTO: AFP

Friday’s court ruling was met with frustration and disappointment from pro-democracy groups, who rallied around Bangkok’s city centre.

Several protest groups also called for all those who opposed the ruling to wear black for the coming week to “mourn” for the future of Thailand.

More protests are expected to be held over the weekend.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.