BANGKOK — Thailand’s Constitutional Court suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from his duties on Wednesday while it decides whether the man who led a military coup in 2014 has violated the country’s term limits.
It’s considered unlikely that the court will rule against Prayuth and permanently force him out since it has generally ruled in the government’s favor in a slew of political cases.
Prayuth could be allowed to continue, but that would encourage a long-running protest movement to overthrow him. This could lead to deep fractures in Thai politics which have occasionally led to violence. Prayuth came to power initially in a coup. However, the position was won legally in 2019 after general elections.
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The acting prime minister was not announced immediately. The law clearly indicates that it will be Prawit Wongsuwan (Deputy Prime Minister), a political ally of Prayuth who is also part of the military clique responsible for the coup.
Their close association means Prawit’s appointment as Prayuth’s replacement would not mollify critics.
Prayuth’s detractors contend he has violated a law that limits prime ministers to eight years in power — a threshold they say he hit Tuesday since he officially became prime minister on Aug. 24, 2014.
His supporters argue that his term should start from 2017, when the constitution’s term limit provision was in effect. A second interpretation of the term-limit provision would see the clock start in 2019 after the election.
One group representing the principal protest leader in the movement to overthrow Prayuth demanded his resignation on Wednesday.
“No Prayuth. No Prawit. No military coup government,” the group known as Ratsadon, or The People, said while issuing a new call for protest.
A earlier statement called the last eight years “the darkest and most bitter times. The period of time under the control of a dictator who takes power from the people. A tyrant who inherits power through a mechanism without democratic legitimacy.”
The almost surreal case — in which the court is deciding whether a coup-leader has stayed in power too long — highlighted Thailand’s unusual political culture. The country has seen a string of coups. However, the soldiers that overthrow elected leaders often attempt to legitimize their rule by holding elections or adhering to constitutional restrictions.
The court voted 5-4 on Wednesday to agree to suspend Prayuth’s duties as it examines an opposition petition. The court’s announcement said Prayuth must submit his defense within 15 days of receiving a copy of the complaint, but it did not say when it would rule.
Prayuth’s other position as Defense Minister was not mentioned in the statement.
Polls show Prayuth’s popularity is at a low ebb, with voters blaming him for mishandling the economy and botching Thailand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am very pleased. Gen. Prayuth has stayed for a long time and had no vision to develop the country at all,” Wuttichai Tayati, a 28-year-old who works in marketing, said while protesting outside of the government headquarters on Wednesday. “At least, taking him out for now might make Thailand move forward a bit.”
Tens of thousands marched in 2020 to demand Prayuth’s resignation and that his Cabinet step down. They also demanded the amendment of the constitution and the reform of the monarchy.
Many confrontations took place between students-led protest groups and police, eventually leading to violence. A legal crackdown on activists further embittered Prayuth’s critics.
Small protests appealing again to Prayuth to step down and the Constitutional Court to force him to if he didn’t have been held daily since Sunday.
Even if he does, Prawit’s rise to power would not resolve the standoff.
In addition to his close association with the military clique that seized power, Prawit, 77, was tainted by allegations he had illegally amassed a collection of luxury watches he couldn’t possibly afford on a government salary, though a court accepted his explanation they were gifts and cleared him of wrongdoing.
Whether Prawit would or could actually take the prime minister’s post is not clear. Prawit has openly admitted that his health is poor and is best known for being a political organizer behind the scenes.
Also, according to some legal scholars, a replacement for Prayuth would have to come from the small pool of candidates that the country’s political parties nominated for the job after the 2019 general election. Prawit wasn’t on the list. However, it seems possible that he could still be nominated in an event of deadlock.
Prayuth has to call another election by March 2020 if he’s not removed from office. However, he can also call one earlier.
An eight year term limit was set up to punish Thaksin Shinawatra (previous Prime Minister), a billionaire populist who was expelled by a 2006 military coup. However, his political machine continues to be powerful. The 2014 coup ousted the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Three Thaksin-related prime ministers were expelled from office by court decisions, including Yingluck.
Thailand’s traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, felt that Thaksin’s popularity posed a threat to the country’s monarchy as well as their own influence. Thaksin was repeatedly beaten by the courts, who have been staunch defenders and advocates of the existing order.
Chalida Elvitthayavechnukul (Associated Press) contributed to this article.
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