The Constitutional Court of Thailand decided yesterday to hear a petition from the political opposition asking the Court to make a ruling on when the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s tenure will come to an end. Under the Thai Constitution, the maximum term for a prime minister is eight years, but disagreements have arisen over when exactly Prayut took office and when he should be forced to step down.
Critics believe the clock should have begun ticking when he was first appointed to the role on 24 August 2014, several months after a successful coup led by Prayut saw the then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra removed from office. Supporters of Prayut argue that his first day as prime minister was, in fact, 9 June 2019, when he entered office under the current constitution – a constitution that was rewritten by the post-coup government and came into force in 2017. Regardless of the Court’s decision yesterday, it seems likely that Prayut could still hold onto power.
As the Constitutional Court accepted the petition to decide on Prayut’s tenure, he will be suspended from his duties pending a ruling by the nine-member judge panel of the Court. Although the petition was successful, this may not be the end of the matter. The Constitutional Court has been used in the past for the political ends of the government. It has been utilised in dissolving a popular opposition party before the 2019 election, with its leader being banned from politics for ten years. The Court has been further described as working against past elected governments, as a threat to Thai democracy, as an agent in applying laws related to revolt, rebellion and coup (the wrong kind, presumably) against anti-government protesters, and as supporting the application of harsh laws of lèse-majesté. These laws against defaming, insulting or threatening the monarchy have recently seen sentences such as the 87-year jail term imposed on a woman aged in her 60s for uploading clips to YouTube and Facebook that were critical of the Thai monarchy. Now that the Court has suspended the prime minister, one of his deputies, likely Prawit Wongsuwon, will step in as caretaker.
This presents another possible avenue of intervention for Prayut to hold power; despite being suspended as prime minister, he still holds the powerful position of Defence minister and will continue to attend cabinet meetings. Even if Prayut were to be removed as prime minister due to his tenure coming to an end, he could implement the castling manoeuvre utilised by Vladimir Putin in 2008, whereby he stepped back from the Russian presidency to become prime minister. The Russian prime minister at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, became president before giving the role back to Putin in 2012, thus satisfying Russian presidential term limits.
In such a scenario in Thailand, Prayut would fall back as a member of the cabinet as he is now, before attempting to return to the prime ministership in the next election in 2023. This type of manoeuvre wouldn’t be so foreign to a Thai political system that saw the siblings Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra both holding the role of prime minister between 2001–06 and 2011–14 respectively, nor to a current prime minister who declined to swear allegiance to the Constitution as part of his oath of office. Another complementary solution could be to follow Putin’s lead again in adjusting the Constitution to allow for extended tenure limits.
Regardless of who is in charge on paper, the Prayut government faces significant challenges in the days and months ahead. Along with the 171-Members of Parliament petition submitted to the Constitutional Court, 39 anti-government organisations have demanded Prayut step down from the prime ministership and protest groups have gained approval for a four-day rally in the capital of Bangkok to count down Prayut’s tenure.
A public poll created by academics from eight Thai universities in conjunction with eight media outlets found from a sample of more than 370,000 people that 93 per cent believed Prayut should step down after eight years (although it did not ask when that date was). The Thai economy has also seen the slowest expansion in Southeast Asia coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation has risen to a 14-year high. Whether it is Prayut or someone else in the role of prime minister, issues of anti-government sentiment and a waning economy will remain and are unlikely to be influenced by the decisions of the Constitutional Court.