Opinion – Judgement day for suspended Prime Minister Prayut as politics takes center stage

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It’s judgement day for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as the Constitutional Court is set to make its ruling on whether or not he has breached the 2017 constitution’s 8-year prime ministerial term limit.

Prayut has been in legal limbo for weeks after the Constitutional Court suspended him from performing his duties on August 24th this year. Although he remained in the cabinet as Defense Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has taken over temporarily as acting prime minister.

All eyes will be set today on whether or not that arrangement will become permanent.

Lame Duck Prayut May Continue

From the looks of it, even though weakened, the 2014 coup leader – Gen. Prayut, is still likely to continue his tenure as the Prime Minister.

Many political observers note that it is still likely that the court will rule in Prayut’s favor. 

A leaked note to the Constitutional Court from Meechai Ruchupan, the former chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, stated that Prayut’s premiership should be seen as having started from the promulgation of the constitution in April 2017. 

Should the court accept Meechai’s interpretation, Prayut would once again assume the full powers of his office. It would also give him until April 2025 to rule, provided he wins the next election.

It would be a comeback for a prime minister who has largely refrained from making public comments during the period that he was sidelined, thus limiting himself to his role as defense minister.

Diminishing Fortunes

Although Gen. Prayut may get his limelight back today, the 1-month of limelight that Gen. Prawit managed to get has mortally wounded the coup leader’s image shown to the support base that there is an alternative that could be a softer face to the gang that undertook the 2014 coup.

The softer approach to problems across the country, be it meeting people around the nation, or even taking the opportunity to call in protestors who were protesting outside the Government House to meet and hammer out the problems, has undeniably dimmed the aura that Gen. Prayut used to portray.

The 1-month suspension has shown that the foul-mouthed Gen. Prayut has a strong competitor who has softer approach to dealing with problems and is able to garner the support of the various factions of the Phalang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

Gen. Prawit’s one month in the driver’s seat has already raised discussions that he may want to be prime minister in his own right. In a country where the concept of barami remains important, Prawit has been demonstrating that he possesses the network and clout to run the country.

Prawit’s return has also seen the faction such as the breakaway group lead by the Australian drug dealing convict – Thammanat Prompao, start to cozy up with the PPRP and to start working with Prawit.

While Gen. Prawit has managed to garner the various factions of the PPRP under one umbrella, his 1-month in the ‘Caretaker Prime Minister’ position, has also given hopes to the party that it is only Prawit who may be able to help the party be a strong competitor to the rising popularity of the Pheu Thai party.

The rising Pheu Thai’s strength in public opinion polling means that it is only natural that anti-Thaksin forces begin casting for more popular alternatives who can maximize their chances of stopping a Pheu Thai landslide in the next election.

Conservative political parties have openly begun discussing alternative prime ministerial candidates in a post-Prayut era.

Protest Planned

In addition, a decision by the court to allow Prayut to continue his tenure could reignite public protests against his rule, which had largely quietened down after climaxing in 2020.

All of this indicates that it is unlikely to be smooth sailing for Prayut, even if the high court gives his continuation in office its seal of approval.

Protest groups are already ready to hold their rallies today with various groups holding their protest around the city center – Ratchaprasong and MBK areas.

One group says that they would hold protest from 16:00 hrs. at MBK area and the other at 15:00 hrs. at Central World area.

Protesters burn effigies of judges from the Thai Constitutional Court during a demonstration on November 14, 2021

These groups have openly stated that if Gen. Prayut is allowed to continue, it would be something that would be unacceptable to them as in their view the term of Gen. Prayut started on August 24th, 2014, as per the appointment letter by late HM King Rama IX.

Prayut’s appointment letter on August 24, 2014

New Political Landscape if Prayut is Kicked Out

In what is expected to be an unlikely event, and the Constitutional Court ends Prayut’s term in office, Thailand’s political landscape would be altered dramatically.

Prayut’s removal would take out one of the central characters of Thai politics since 2014, the face of the government since he launched the military coup against the Pheu Thai administration in 2014.

This character – Prayut, was also the central figure during the 2019 general election, whereby parties defined themselves in support of, or in opposition to, Prayut’s continued hold on power.

It looks likely that the next general election will follow the same line of polarization — unless the court intervenes.

No other viable conservative candidate has his level of name recognition or his hold on the conservative base.

A removal would be seismic even in the short term.

A removal would also mean that the entire Cabinet would have to resign and take up the caretaker position. The parliament cannot be dissolved as the bylaws to hold general elections are still pending the Constitutional Court’s hearing and therefore a general election cannot be held until the election laws are put in place.

Prawit Wongsuwan would likely continue to serve as acting prime minister, allowing him to continue consolidating his power base and positioning him to run for the permanent position as Prime Minister, whenever the next election arrives.

He would most likely preside over the APEC Summit in November, which will be hosted in Bangkok. 

At the same time, parliament would have to vote for a new permanent prime minister — the result of which is highly uncertain. The only candidates from the bank of prime ministerial candidates submitted during the 2019 general election from the coalition are Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former prime minister who has since resigned from leading the Democrat Party, and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who leads Bhumjai Thai party but possesses only a little over 60 votes in parliament.

Fundamentally, however, Prayut’s substitution by Prawit would not change the rules of the game: the next general election will be governed by the same rules as the 2019 election, where the NCPO-appointed Senate is allowed to join the lower house in voting for the next prime minister.

Prawit has been the person who has the power among the 250 Senators who have the power to appoint the Prime Minister.

Through this key legacy of senators having power to elect the Prime Minister, at least, the NCPO has made it much harder for the opposition to elect a successor to Gen. Prayut.


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