BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's Constitutional Court suspended Prayut Chan-O-cha as prime minister last week, fuelling speculation the royal establishment is looking to replace the former coup leader ahead of elections that must be called by March.
The court is deliberating whether the former general exceeded an eight year term limit added to a constitution drawn up after the 2014 coup - a provision to stop popular elected leaders from holding onto power for too long.
In this case, Mr Prayut is an increasingly unpopular leader and a recent opinion poll shows him trailing behind a possible opposition candidate. And that's partly to do with his handling of the economy, which is now set for the slowest expansion in South-east Asia this year and has the fastest inflation in 14 years.
However the court rules, Mr Prayut's time in power is limited and it may spur moves to find his replacement from within political and military circles in Thailand.
He must step down as prime minister if he is found to have gone past the term limit, or he stays on for another four years at the most.
Here's a look at candidates that the Thai royalist military establishment might support:
Prawit Wongsuwan, 77
Caretaker Prime Minister
Mr Prawit Wongsuwan, who is standing in as caretaker following Mr Prayut's suspension, has a shot. Before turning to politics, Mr Prawit was one of the figureheads of Burapha Payak, or the Eastern Tigers faction within the Thai military that's also known as the Queen's Guard.
The retired general leads the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and is "big brother" in the nexus of government power known as "3P," which includes Mr Prayut and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda.
In the latest no-confidence vote against the government, Mr Prawit received the most lawmaker support among the 3P. If the royal establishment backs him, he can count on the support from the military-appointed Senate, which has the power to appoint prime minister along with the House of Representatives until 2024.
An opinion poll in early 2022 showed there was little public support for Mr Prawit as the next prime minister. This might have to do with the time he came under investigation for failing to declare his assets when he was seen sporting luxury watches and a diamond ring. He was later cleared of wrongdoing.
Apirat Kongsompong, 62
Former army chief
Mr Apirat Kongsompong is a serious contender given his public loyalty to King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who appointed him to sit in the Privy Council with the monarch's most trusted advisers. He led the army for two years from 2018 and hails from the Wongthewan military faction, or the King's Guard, which rivals 3P's Eastern Tigers.
Mr Apirat has described opposition politicians as threats to national security and accused them of plotting to overthrow the monarchy, gaining him wide support within Thai royalists and conservatives, who call him "the king's soldier".
His charisma and commanding presence make him an attractive candidate, enough to draw backing from the establishment and push a switch in allegiances from Mr Prayut's supporters.
"He's well-connected with the palace, the military, and big businesses, potentially ranking him among the top of the list for the establishment," said Dr Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.
Ampon Kittiampon, 66
Another Privy Council member
Mr Ampon Kittiampon is another preferred replacement given his connections to the palace and experience in government and the financial sector. He's the technocrat in this group of contenders, having been the chairman of Thailand's central bank and Thai Airways as well as secretary of a government economic planning agency.
Mr Ampon, who has also served as cabinet secretary for three governments, was once regarded as a potential "outsider prime minister" candidate in the 2019 elections.
This was in case Mr Prayut, who was the only establishment-friendly name on an approved list of candidates, failed to win parliament support.
Anutin Charnvirakul, 55
One of Mr Prayut's six deputy prime ministers
Mr Anutin Charnvirakul could be on the minds of the powerbrokers. The head of the Bhumjaithai party played a kingmaker role during the 2019 elections before eventually siding with Mr Palang Pracharath and also secured the health ministry portfolio.
A US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks identified Mr Anutin in 2009 as a close associate of the king, who was crown prince at the time.
A construction magnate before he joined politics, Mr Anutin was included in an approved list of prime minister candidates for the last polls. He may be considered for prime minister in the event the Constitutional Court rules Mr Prayut should step down.
Analysts don't expect Mr Anutin to go out of his way for a temporary role as Bhumjaithai has grown more popular, largely due to a successful cannabis decriminalisation policy, and his party will nominate him as their prime minister candidate in the next elections.
"If Anutin wants it, he will have to weigh whether it's worth it to pour resources into a shot at being prime minister for six months," said Mr Teerasak Siripant, managing director at strategic adviser consultancy BowerGroupAsia. "It might be more worth it to save all that for a shot at being prime minister for four years."