Thai leader suspended on opposition’s legal challenge but ruling may signal establishment elites want a new top candidate at next election
BANGKOK – Thailand’s topsy-turvy politics were thrown into new disarray today with a Constitutional Court ruling to suspend Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha from his official duties until it rules on an opposition petition that argues he has already served his legal eight-year term limit.
The petition argues that Prayut’s time atop his May 2014 coup-installed regime, where he took official power as prime minister after overthrowing an elected civilian government on August 23 that year, should count towards his legally allowed eight years in power.
The premier’s proponents argue his term officially started in 2017, when a new constitution took effect, while others say his tenure should not be counted until after the 2019 election.
A panel of judges ruled five to four in favor of the premier’s suspension, which officially started today; Prayut has 15 days to submit his response to the suspension, according to news reports. Protests are percolating again in Bangkok, apparently coaxing the premier to avoid working from Government House.
It’s not clear how long it will take the court to deliver a final ruling on the petition, which depending on the verdict could accelerate significantly the kingdom’s timeline for new elections, which legally must be held by May next year.
The court’s ruling will likely catapult Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, Prayut’s trusted colleague and former superior in the military’s hierarchy, as interim leader until a final ruling is handed down. Prayut will still be present in Cabinet meetings as defense minister, a position he simultaneously holds.
The court ruling represents a rare political victory for the political opposition led by self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Peua Thai Party, which placed first at the 2019 election, and the upstart anti-establishment Move Forward Party, which came in third after Prayut and Prawit’s conservative Palang Pracharat Party.
The opposition had hoped to knock Prayut from power at last month’s no-confidence debate, including through richly paid anti-Prayut votes from members of the ruling coalition, but was outflanked at the eleventh hour when the premier’s handlers became aware of the attempted vote-buying, sources familiar with the situation said.
Peua Thai and Move Forward will have nonetheless achieved the desired result of an interim Prawit-led administration, which analysts and observers predict will further erode the PPRP-led government’s popularity in light of the ex-soldier’s reputation for money politics and influence-peddling in the run-up to new elections.
A local poll held ahead of the Constitutional Court’s ruling found that nearly two-thirds of respondents wanted Prayut to vacate his office within this month.
A June poll, panned as flawed by the premier, showed that Thaksin’s political novice daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, was preferred over Prayut as prime minister by an over two-to-one margin (25.28% to 11.68%).
She has predicted a “landslide” Peua Thai win at the next election and more controversially indicated, if elected, she would seek to bring her criminally-convicted father back from self-exile – a lightning rod proposal last advanced by Thaksin’s then-premier sister Yingluck that set off the concatenation of events that eventuated in the 2014 military putsch.
What’s not clear yet, however, is whether today’s preliminary court ruling signals a behind-the-scenes, pre-election move away from Prayut by the conservative establishment, comprised of the royal palace, traditional elites and top “five family” big businesses, he has cosseted both as a coup-maker and elected leader.
One source familiar with the situation says a group of traditional and influential Thai “yellow” elites including an ex-premier and foreign minister, after rounds of dinner talks, recently delivered a message to Prayut asking him to put the nation before himself and refrain from contesting the next general election to make way for a more electable, civilian candidate to champion the conservative cause.
The message invoked the example of now-deceased former premier and ex-army commander Prem Tinsulanonda, who stepped down after serving eight years in power (1980-88) to become the former king’s most trusted advisor as head of his Privy Council, a position many believe the loyal royal Prayut is being groomed to serve under new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The same message emphasized the need for national reconciliation after years of political polarization that neither of Prayut’s tenures has seriously worked to address – and indeed through the controversial dissolution of the youth-led Future Forward Party and persistent sniping at Thaksin has only served to deepen.
At the same time, Prayut’s PPRP-led administration has been riven with internal division among conservative-leaning parties and factions – usually over resources, ministerial posts and state projects – driving at least one major faction to establish a new party that is now reportedly flirting with joining forces with Peua Thai.
While Prayut may be down, the ex-soldier is not necessarily politically out. It is clear to most observers that Prayut is set on presiding over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to be staged in Bangkok in mid-November with world leaders in attendance as a capstone on his elected premiership.
Those familiar with official thinking say the now-suspended premier aimed to leverage the event to showcase Thailand’s successful re-emergence from the pandemic and portray the tourism-dependent kingdom as a bastion of global openness in an era of increasing protectionism and closed borders.
Thailand’s tourism industry, and hence the nation’s economic prospects, is brightening by the day and is expected to boom during the coming winter high season – a foreign-led, post-pandemic economic bounce that Prayut and his election planners had hoped to leverage and ride on next year’s campaign trail.
Some analysts believe Prayut will likely survive the suspension and resume power shortly on the legal grounds that the opposition’s petition effectively calls for a retroactive interpretation of the constitution, which only became the law in 2017. They believe the court, at least procedurally, aims to show equality under the law after opposition criticism of perceived as biased rulings against its members.
But much now depends on how Prayut perceives the court’s suspension, namely whether he believes the ruling was based on an honest reading of the law aimed at portraying equal treatment of both political sides, or rather a conservative elite manipulation of the sort that has upended previous Thaksin-aligned governments when they were perceived as a danger or threat to their long-term interests.