Prayut Chan-o-cha, then head of Thailand’s military junta, delivers a speech during a visit to the rescue command center at the Chalong Pier on July 9, 2018, after two boats carrying 127 Chinese tourists capsized off the island of Phuket.
Thailand’s Constitutional Court is set to rule tomorrow on an opposition petition arguing that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has reached the legal limit on how long he can remain in office. Earlier this month, the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), announced that it planned to seek a ruling from the court on whether the nearly five years that Prayut spent at the head of a military junta count toward the constitutional term limit of eight years.
In a petition filed to the nine-member court yesterday, 171 opposition members of the House of Representatives argued that Prayut’s term officially commenced on August 24, 2014, three months after he led a coup against the democratically elected PTP government. As a result, the petition argues, today – August 23 – marks the end of Prayut’s term in office.
Prayut’s supporters and coalition partners claim that the clock only started ticking during his time in office when the current military-drafted constitution came into effect on April 6, 2017. Others argue that his term formally began on June 9, 2019, when Prayut took office following that year’s general election – the first to be held under the aegis of the 2017 constitution.
But as journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall observed in a recent issue of his Secret Siam newsletter, the intent of the constitution is fairly straightforward in seeking to limit any individual from holding the office for more than eight years, no matter when this time is served.
Section 158 states that the prime minister “shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not holding consecutive term” (emphasis added). This seems to imply that any time served prior to its promulgation should count toward the eight-year limit.
Indeed, Marshall argues that this reflects the motivation for why Section 158 was inserted in the constitution in the first place: to prevent exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or a similar populist figure, from gaining a stronghold on Thai politics and threatening the power of the country’s military-royalist elite.
In addition, Section 264 states that ministers who were appointed under previous constitutions since 2014 were eligible to remain in these positions after the promulgation of the new constitution in 2017, implying a continuity between the pre-and post-2017 political orders – exactly the thing that Prayut’s supports claim should not apply in his case.
Marshall noted the irony in the fact that a provision designed to forestall the emergence of a popular opponent of the conservative establishment has now “backfired to put Prayut’s future in doubt.”
Whether the PTP’s gambit pays off remains to be seen. Prayut has already survived four no-confidence votes since 2019, the most recent of which occurred last month, and has faced down – and, through legal blunt force, largely defeated – a campaign of youth-led protests pushing for his resignation and deeper reforms to Thailand’s lopsided political economy.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court has been criticized for ruling in favor of Prayut’s administration, and tailoring its legal justifications to the political prerogatives of the conservative establishment. Indeed, alongside armed coups d’etat, legal chicanery has been the method of choice for forestalling the return of Thaksin’s proxies to power since the popular former prime minister was overthrown by the military in 2006.
Moreover, as the Bangkok Post observed in an editorial today, the court recently ruled that court president Worawit Kangsasitiam, who was appointed under the 2004 Constitution, which allows judges to serve for nine years or until the age of 70, can remain in his post under the terms of the 2017 Constitution. This would suggest some precedent for allowing Prayut to remain in office until 2025.
Even if the Constitutional Court allows Prayut to scrape out of political jeopardy, his popularity, never significant to begin with, remains at a low ebb. Street protests have resumed this week, urging the court to rule against Prayut, and public opinion polls show strong support for the PTP’s argument about Prayut’s term in office. In a poll of 1,312 people conducted on August 2-4, the National Institute of Development Administration found that 64 percent – nearly two-thirds – wanted Prayut to leave office on August 23.
With elections due to be held by March next year, and the PTP likely to win in a fair fight with Prayut’s rickety coalition, it is likely that the ruling establishment will bend or manipulate the rules in order to secure a new term for Prayut or a pliant successor, as they did in 2019. But there is only so long that the Thai leader can put off some kind of reckoning with popular sentiment. In the meantime, Thailand’s politics is set to grow ever more polarized and embittered.