By Rebecca Ratcliffe
Aug 24, 2022
Surprise move by constitutional court throws Thai politics into confusion
Prayuth Chan-ocha, who staged a coup when he was army chief in 2014, has 15 days to respond to the court’s ruling. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been suspended from office by the constitutional court while it considers whether he has overstayed the limits of his term.
The court agreed to hear a case brought by opposition MPs, who say Prayuth, who came to power in a coup in 2014, should have left office this week. Under Thailand’s constitution, prime ministers are barred from ruling for more than eight years.
The court said in a statement that Prayuth would be suspended until a verdict was reached.
“The court considered the petition and supporting documents and deems the facts according to the request indicate reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a case as requested,” the court said in a statement. “Thus, a majority vote (five against four) for (Prayuth) to be suspended as prime minister, effective 24 August 2022, until the court issues a verdict.”
The deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a former army chief and close ally of Prayuth, will act as interim leader, according to the government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri.
Prayuth has been given 15 days to respond to the petition. It is not clear when a verdict will be issued.
Prayuth’s supporters argue that he has not yet reached his term limit because the constitution was not introduced until 2017 and therefore should not be applied retrospectively. Others argue the time limit should be counted from 2019, when he was named prime minister following democratic elections.
If the court rules in Prayuth’s favour, this could allow him to remain in office until 2025 or 2027 – depending on next year’s elections, which are due to be held before May 2023. However, polling found that almost two-thirds of people in Thailand want Prayuth to leave office this month.
Over recent days, protest groups have gathered in Bangkok, calling for him to stand down. “We’re not just content with suspending Prayuth from duty. We want parliament dissolved and a snap election,” an activist who identified herself as Manee told Reuters. “We’re not happy. Prayuth stole power from a woman and became prime minister in a coup,” she said, referring to the prime minister ousted in 2014, Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the former prime minister and telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck and Thaksin live abroad in self-exile.
On Sunday, 38 protest groups released a joint statement describing his rule as “the darkest and most bitter times” and warning the court: “To allow this tyrant to remain in office would be a catalyst for anger and a major uprising that would jeopardise your sacred institution.”
Prayuth has survived numerous no-confidence votes and was also targeted by mass pro-democracy protests during 2020. However, protests, which also called for monarchy reform, have dwindled as the authorities crack down on rallies. At least 1,843 people have been charged in relation to political protests since July 2020 according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
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