Thai PM suspended while court mulls if he defied term limits

Thailand’s government held its first official meetings Thursday under an acting prime minister, after a court ordered the suspension of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha a day earlier while it considered if he violated the position’s legal term limits, Associated Press reported.

Prayuth’s removal is likely to only be temporary since the Constitutional Court has generally ruled in the government’s favor in a slew of political cases. Tipanan Sirichana, deputy spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office, said the court decision meant Prayuth was suspended until a final decision, though no date was set for that.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has assumed the role of acting prime minister, taking over Prayuth’s duties. On Thursday, he chaired a meeting of a committee on communications during national disasters that he was previously scheduled to attend.

Prayuth, while suspended from prime minister duties, has kept his other Cabinet position as defense minister, and in that capacity he attended a monthly meeting of the government’s Defense Council, participating via video.

Any court ruling allowing Prayuth to stay on as prime minster risks invigorating a protest movement that has long sought to oust him and reopening deep fissures in Thailand, which has been rocked by repeated bursts of political chaos since a coup toppled then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

Since then, Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire whose populist appeal threatened the traditional power structure, has remained at the center of the country’s politics, as his supporters and opponents fought for power both at the ballot box and in the streets, sometimes violently. The 2014 takeover ousted his sister’s government from power.

Spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said Prayuth would respect the court’s decision and called on others to do the same. But those who want Prayuth gone don’t want Prawit, a close political ally of Prayuth and part of the same military clique that staged the coup, in power either.

“No Prayuth. No Prawit. No military coup government,” a leading protest group said in a statement after the Wednesday court decision.

The group known as Ratsadon, or The People, issued a new call for protests, but only a small number came in response.

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.

But his supporters contend his term should be counted from when the current constitution, which contains the term-limit provision, came into effect in 2017. Another interpretation would start the clock in 2019, when he won the job legally after a general election.

The case — in which the court is deciding whether a coup leader has stayed in power too long — highlighted Thailand’s particular political culture: Often the soldiers who overthrow elected leaders then try to legitimize their rule and defuse opposition by holding elections and abiding by constitutional restrictions.

By a vote of 5 to 4 on Wednesday, the court agreed to suspend the prime minister from his duties while it considers a petition from opposition lawmakers. 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. The ruling allowed him to stay in his other post as defense minister.

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.

In 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Prayuth and his Cabinet resign, while also calling for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy to be reformed.

Several confrontations between the student-driven protest movement and authorities became violent. A legal crackdown on activists further embittered 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, but drew only small crowds.


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