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In probably the biggest political news in Thailand in a long time, 2014 coup leader and incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was suspended by the Constitutional Court to undertake duties as Premier until the court delivers a ruling on his 8-year tenure.
Although the final decision is set to come sometimes in September or possibly in October here are some key takeaways from this.
1. What does the court decision portend for its final ruling?
It is not surprising that the court decided to accept the opposition’s petition on whether General Prayut’s tenure has now breached the 8-year term limit imposed by the constitution. Although the Constitutional Court has not always accepted hot-potato political cases in the past, there was little justification for why the court would not accept a case so clearly under their jurisdiction, and many legal experts expected the court to take this on.
The major surprise came in how the court voted 5-4 to temporarily suspend General Prayut from the premiership. It is only natural to ask whether this portends something about the eventual decision on the term limit itself.
Is there now a majority on the court for removing the prime minister from power?
The answer to this question is still unknown, but the odds for that happening has increased considerably given the decision that was taken today.
2. Thailand’s first change in leadership in 8-years
General Prayut remains defense minister and will continue to serve in the cabinet, but all eyes will now turn to his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, who now serves as acting prime minister.
It is the first change in official leadership, even if temporary, that Thailand has had in 8-years. General Prawit will be limited in his role as a caretaker; he cannot make key personnel or budgetary decisions.
Given the level of General Prawit’s power and influence in the past, this change will hardly feel like a breath of fresh air. The acting prime minister has always been a key part of the “Three Ps” triumvirate that took power after the 2014 military coup.
Whether or not General Prayut will be removed from office remains unknown, but the minds will now begin turning towards the post-Prayut era.
Previously, all signs indicated that General Prayut still intended to remain in office for the long haul or at the very least, he wanted to be prime minister until the end of the year in order to chair the APEC meetings due to be hosted in Bangkok in November; it was also clear that the now-suspended prime minister wanted to run for a 3rd term, with a number of parties launching in recent months vocally supporting him for a fresh bid.
3. A search for a conservative successor begins
Now, with the prospect that General Prayut does not survive this court ruling becoming a very real possibility, it is worth asking who his successor will be.
General Prawit is the most obvious successor in the short term, as he leads Palang Pracharath party (PPRP), the biggest party in the coalition, and has enough clout to keep the unwieldy coalition together.
However, he is not in the list of prime ministerial candidates from the 2019 election, and parliament would have to vote to overrule that list and choose an ‘outsider candidate.’ This change required at least 2/3 majority which is next to impossible to achieve at this juncture as parties prepare to go to polls by no later than Q1 2023.
Among those on the list and in the current coalition it is only Anutin Charnvirakul of the Bhumjai Thai Party who is on that list and may be the only viable candidate, but his party controls only 60 seats in parliament; he may have a difficult time bargaining that position for himself.
What is clear is that over the 8-years of General Prayut’s tenure, no candidate has emerged as a natural future prime minister. General Prayut retains a hold on the conservative base as its popular choice for premier; no other figure in Thailand has quite the same claim.
General Prawit, who is akin to a Dick Cheney figure in Thai politics, probably lacks the popular touch and has found his image tainted by a corruption investigation (although he denies the allegations).
His electoral history as PPRP leader has not been particularly successful, with the party losing key races in the South and faring poorly in Bangkok.
At 77, he would be the oldest prime minister in Thai history, and he himself has noted in the past to reporters when questioned about his prime ministerial prospects that he struggled to walk. Whether General Prawit would be an ideal front man for the government is surely a question on the minds of many in the coalition.
It is also evident that General Prayut’s removal would make an early general election, currently scheduled for next year, more likely, as a new leader may try to win a new mandate, or the coalition may fall apart.
If General Prayut is no longer prime minister, expect a jockeying of future candidates whose ambitions have been suppressed for years.
4. It’s still possible that General Prayut is not removed
Before going too far into the hypotheticals of what happens in post- General Prayut Thailand, it is important to remember that it is still possible — indeed, perhaps even likely — that General Prayut is allowed to remain in power by the Constitutional Court.
The opposition argues that General Prayut’s tenure began when he became prime minister in 2014, and in keeping with the spirit of the constitution his tenure should end now.
However, key legal justifications are open to those who wish to interpret General Prayut’s tenure as ending later.
As the term limits were imposed by the promulgation of the 2017 constitution; this did not exist in the temporary charter that the National Council for Peace and Order drafted and under which General Prayut 1st became premier.
Therefore, the proponents of this view argue that the law cannot apply retroactively, and that the prime minister’s time in office should therefore only count from the moment of the 2017 constitution’s coming into force onwards.
An alternative argument, although less compelling, is that General Prayut’s tenure under the current constitution only began in 2019, when he was voted into office by the House of Representatives.
While the winds of change appear to be blowing, and General Prayut is certainly damaged by the Constitutional Court’s ruling, whether or not the court will deal a final blow to his premiership remains an open question.