Court lifts Thai PM’s suspension, says he can serve until 2025

By Lobsang DS Subirana

Bangkok Desk, Sep 30 (EFE).- Thailand’s Constitutional Court allowed Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-Ocha to remain in his post Friday after an investigation into whether he had breached a clause limiting his term in office, by ruling that his tenure began in 2017.

The decision means he can serve until 2025 and comes after the court temporarily suspended Prayut in August while it investigated whether the prime minister had surpassed his eight-year term limit according to the current constitution drafted by his then-military regime.

“As the 2017 constitution came into effect on Apr. 6, 2017, and the respondent was prime minister before the date this constitution came into effect (…) the prime ministership of the respondent then started under this constitution,” said Punya Udchacon, part of the nine-judge tribunal.

The court ruled that Prayut’s term as head of government began five years ago, when the current constitution came into force, after it was drafted by the rubber-stamped parliament he led and approved via a referendum during which it was forbidden to campaign against the charter.

The constitutional clause in question states that “the prime minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not holding consecutive terms. However, it shall not include the period during which the prime minister carries out duties after vacating office.”

Court-suspended Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his role of defense minister, inspects a Sig Sauer US Army XM250 LMG Light Machine Gun on display at the Defense and Security 2022, a Tri-Service defense and internal security showcase in Bangkok, Thailand, 29 August 2022. EPA-EFE/RUNGROJ YONGRIT/FILE

Critics had argued that Prayut had become prime minister in 2014, when he led a military coup to depose the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The retired army general has been in power since, though he was only elected in 2019 following Thailand’s return to civilian rule.

The court however said the constitutional clause was not retroactive and his term could not be counted from the moment of the power grab.

As an elected leader, Prayut has led a conservative coalition government and become gradually unpopular with followers over issues including the country’s economic downturn and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His latest approval rating stood at 12.7 percent, during a March survey by the National Institute of Development Administration. He so far hasn’t publicly sought re-election.

Prayut, who doubles as defense minister, made no immediate comment following the verdict. He was seen leaving his office to await the decision from his home, instead sending his legal representatives to the court in Northern Bangkok, where some 300 police officers have been deployed since Thursday evening.

The move comes to prevent protests similar to the ones that sparked Thailand’s pro-democracy movement in mid-2020, when mass student-led demonstrations lined the country’s streets to demand constitutional, political and monarchical reforms. The movement has since faded, due in part to severe restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The rallies broke the taboo of criticizing the country’s powerful royal family, whose current monarch King Vajiralongkorn lacks the popularity of his late father King Bhumibol, who died in 2016 after reigning since 1946.

About 200 people have been detained – including minors and pro-democracy leaders – and accused in the past 18 months of lese majeste, a crime that carries between three and 15 years in prison for anyone judged to have defamed the country’s monarchy.

Prayut’s temporary replacement, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, was also involved in the military putsch and both have held key governmental positions since 2014 along with Gen. Anupong Paochinda.

A protest was called for 4pm on Friday by student group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration in Bangkok’s Pathumwan Skywalk to demand that the “Three Pors” – as the three are known on account of their initials – be removed from power. Another protest was also planned by the Khana Lomruam Prachachon group at 5pm at Ratchaprasong Intersection. EFE

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