Thailand's PM Prayut to stop duties while awaiting court verdict on eight-year term limit

Demonstrators are demanding that Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha step down. PHOTO: REUTERS
People protest during a demonstration calling for the removal of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, in Bangkok on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
People protest during a demonstration calling for the removal of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, in Bangkok on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Thailand’s constitutional court on Wednesday (Aug 24) suspended Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha from his official duties pending the result of a legal review of his eight-year term. 

In a statement, the court said it “agreed unanimously” to review a petition from opposition lawmakers, who argue that Mr Prayut, 68, has breached the constitutional eight-year term limit as he became PM on Aug 24, 2014. 

“The court has considered the petition and relevant documents and sees that the facts from the complaint show cause for concern,” said the court statement in Thai. 

The eight-year term limit was spelled out in the new Constitution enacted in 2017. It did not, however, define at what point the term starts. 

While Mr Prayut seized power in a coup in 2014, his supporters say the Constitution cannot be retroactively applied and his term should thus be counted from 2017. 

Others say the count should start after the 2019 election, when he became prime minister under the latest Constitution.

The nine-judge court on Wednesday ruled five to four in favour of his suspension, which will be upheld until the court comes to a verdict. Local media has reported that this could come by September. 

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, will serve as caretaker PM in the interim, said government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri.

Mr Prayut can, however, continue to attend Cabinet meetings in his capacity as defence minister. 

The latest challenge for the embattled Premier comes after the main opposition party Pheu Thai filed the petition last week asking the court to rule on when his term as the country’s leader should end. 

The petition seeks the court’s interpretation of Section 158 of the 2017 Constitution, which states: “The prime minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not consecutively.” 

The court’s judgment will determine if Mr Prayut is eligible for re-election to the post in the next general election, expected early next year. 

Protesters have rallied across Bangkok for four days now, demanding that Mr Prayut step down.

They say that the eight-year period started on Aug 24, 2014, when the former army chief assumed office after staging a military coup in May that year. 

Dr Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University who has researched constitutional law, said legal scholars have conflicting views on the interpretation of the start date. 

“There is a genuine academic conflict,” said Dr Khemthong, who is of the view that the count starts from 2014 as it is the “simplest” reading of the law.

The rationale for the eight-year limit is to prevent the monopolisation of power by any prime minister, and is thought to target the return of figures such as ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, said observers. 

The court order for Mr Prayut to suspend his duties as prime minister is “pretty aggressive” even if the order is temporary, and has been met with some surprise, said Dr Khemthong. 

“But after reality sinks in, many people realise that not much has changed. With Prawit in charge, it is more or less the same,” he said. 

Mr Prawit, who leads the ruling Palang Pracharath Party is regarded as a political power broker and close ally of Mr Prayut. 

Earlier this month, Mr Prawit said that he expects Mr Prayut to be PM for two more years, but did not go into specifics. 

Supporters of Mr Prayut say his term should be counted from 2017, while opponents say it should be from 2014. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Some political observers expect the courts to rule in favour of Mr Prayut continuing as prime minister, citing past cases where the Constitutional Court has cleared him of wrongdoing. 

This includes a 2020 court ruling clearing Mr Prayut of a complaint alleging that he had breached ethics by living rent-free at army housing after retiring as army chief in 2014. 

“Based on this direction, it is very difficult to hope for anything else,” said Dr Khemthong. 

Political analyst Punchada Sirivunnabood said it is likely that the courts will find some gap in the law to return Mr Prayut to power, adding that other government leaders have voiced confidence in his survival. 

Several of the Constitutional Court judges were appointed by the National Legislative Assembly and the senate - both bodies are seen to be under military influence.

In the event that the courts do decide that Mr Prayut has reached the term limit, Parliament will have to pick a new prime minister from a list of qualified candidates who ran in the 2019 election. 

An online poll held last weekend by a network of media outlets and academics showed that more than 90 per cent of the more than 370,000 respondents did not want Mr Prayut to stay beyond the eight-year limit. 

Despite the waning popularity of Mr Prayut and his coalition government, who are accused of mishandling the economy and Thailand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the faction has survived four no-confidence votes, and late on Tuesday pushed through its budget Bill for the 2023 fiscal year. 

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From army man to Thai premier

Mr Prayut Chan-o-cha was born to a military family in 1954, in Thailand’s north-eastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. 

A staunch supporter of the royal family, the 68-year-old began his career in the 1970s at the prestigious 21st Infantry Regiment, also known as the Queen’s Guard. 

2003: Promoted to commander of the Second Infantry Division.  

2006: Becomes commander of the First Army Area following the September 2006 coup that deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

2008: Rises to become chief of staff for the Royal Thai Army. 

2010: Appointed army chief. 

2014: Leads the May coup that ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Sets up the National Council for Peace and Order to govern the nation, with himself as its leader. The 2007 Constitution is repealed and in July an interim Constitution is enforced. 

2014: Mr Prayut becomes prime minister on Aug 24 after a military-dominated national legislature elects him to the post.

2017: A new military-backed Constitution is adopted in April. It states that no prime minister can remain in power for more than eight years. It also says that the prime minister need not be an elected Member of Parliament as long as Parliament votes the person in. 

2019: First general election held since the coup. The Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) wins the polls that is criticised for its irregularities and rules that are seen to favour the pro-military party. The PPRP leads the 19-party coalition government and nominates Mr Prayut as its candidate for prime minister and he is voted in by Parliament under the latest Constitution. Mr Prayut also takes on the role of defence minister. 

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