Court allows Prayut to stay on as PM, new protest called

The Constitutional Court on Friday ruled in favour of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha and affirmed his eligibility to stay in power as Prime Minister, more than 8 years after he assumed the top office through a military coup.

Constitutional Court judges read the 8-year term ruling.

Although the current constitution says a Prime Minister stay in power for more than 8years, the court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the constitution came into effect on 6 April 2017, and his time in office should be counted from that date. The verdict is likely to escalate the discontent against his prolonged grip on power; protesters are already converging in downtown Bangkok for a fresh round of anti-government rallies.

The court’s ruling immediately restored the 68-year-old former army chief back to his post as Prime Minister, after the judges suspended him on 24 August while the case was under deliberation. His deputy, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, had meanwhile taken charge as acting Prime Minister, though Prayut still kept his Cabinet position as Defence Minister. 

“I’d like to express my deep respect for the verdict of the Constitutional Court, and I’d like to thank all the members of the public for their encouragement and best wishes that they have been giving me,” Prayut wrote on his official Facebook account, with the comment section turned off. 

“I want to use the precious limited time of this government to follow up on and drive forward important projects that I have started, so that they can move forward toward completion, building progress for the country and building a future for our children,” he wrote.

The lengthy statement continued with him listing the major policies from his government that he would like to see carried out successfully, before ending with the promise of a “golden age of progress for all the Thai people.”

“Today, we have come a long way and we’ve come in the right direction,” Prayut said at the end of his post. “We have to help each other to finish this.” 

Earlier today, his erstwhile successor Prawit did not respond to reporters’ questions about the impending verdict when he arrived for work at Government House. Asked whether he wanted to have Prayut back as the Prime Minister, the 77-year-old retired general replied, “I don’t know.” 

Prayut returns, so do the protesters

The outcome was widely expected by many analysts, but the verdict will likely fan a new wave of anger among the supporters of the youth-led protest movement that have repeatedly called for Prayut’s ouster. 

A fresh rally was already called by a coalition of activist groups at Pathumwan Intersection on 16.00 Friday to protest Prayut’s return to the premiership, which it denounced as “illegitimate.” Ratsadon, one of the groups behind the call, also urged its supporters to wear black from 1 October to 7 October as a symbolic show of dissent. 

“We, Ratsadon, would like to declare our affirmation in the presence of our brothers and sisters that the tyrant Prayut Chan-o-cha has since 24 August 2022, become an illegitimate Prime Minister and a Prime Minister not sanctioned by the Constitution,” the group said in a statement handed out to the media at Pathumwan Intersection. 

Contingents of police officers were seen deployed at the intersection, though no violence or arrests have been reported so far. 

The Pathumwan intersection is the same site where a large anti-government protest was dispersed by riot police using tear gas and water cannon nearly two years ago, sparking a series of violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police that lasted for months. Many observers fear the return of similar escalation in the aftermath of today’s verdict.

Another rally is set to take place on Saturday at Victory Monument, a short march away from Prayut’s official residence inside a military base on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. 

Prayut has already made history by staying in power longer than any of his predecessors in recent decades. He first became Prime Minister after seizing power in 2014, and the general was named premier again after the election in 2019 through a parliamentary vote that included an entirely unelected Senate, whose members were handpicked by Prayut himself. 

Thailand is staring at the possibility of even more years under Prayut. Using the court’s rationale, since his term’s beginning was placed on 6 April 2017, when the current charter came into effect, he will not reach the 8-year limit until April 2025. 

The verdict affirming his eligibility to stay on in power also came at a time when his popularity is said to be dipping, brought down by the public’s fatigue with his near-decade rule, allegations of corruption and cronyism among his allies, economic woes, and his mishandling of the COVID pandemic last year. 

Speaking at a news show hosted by the Standard news agency, political scientist Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee wondered how the public will react to Prayut’s candidacy should he choose to run in the next election, slated to take place in early 2023, especially now that the Constitutional Court seems to cap his term limit at 2025. 

“Rationally speaking, how will political parties explain during the election that ‘we will nominate Gen Prayut, but he will be the Prime Minister for only two years’?” Siripan asked. 

She also said the next big thing to look for is a Cabinet shakeup in the next few months, since there are up to four vacant ministerial seats, and who will get the final say in the matter, given the considerable infighting said to be unfolding within the ruling coalition.

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