Thailand’s constitutional court has allowed the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, to remain in his job after suspending him in August while it considered whether he had overstayed his term limit.
The court ruled Prayuth, a former army general who first came to power in a military coup in 2014, had not yet reached the limit of his term, even though prime ministers are barred from serving for more than eight years under Thailand’s constitution. The case had been brought by opposition MPs who argued Prayuth had violated the limit.
“The majority ruled that the prime ministerial term of the respondent has not yet finished,” the court said on Friday.
Security was tightened at the court building before the ruling, with 300 police officers deployed. While pro-democracy rallies that shook the establishment during 2020 have halted because ofcharges brought against activist leaders, Friday’s verdict has reignited anger on social media and some groups have threatened to call protests. One protest group, Ratsadon, urged for people to wear black next week to “mourn the death of Thailand’s future”.
Prayuth’s supporters have argued that he has not yet reached his term limit because the most recent constitution went into effect in 2017 and therefore should not be applied retrospectively. Some supporters have claimed the time limit should be counted from 2019, when he was named prime minister after after elections.
On Friday, the court ruled: “Prime ministerial term must be counted from [when] the constitution was promulgated.”
The court case is the latest challenge to have been faced by Prayuth, who has also survived multiple no-confidence votes as well as the pro-democracy protests that called for an end to his government and reforms to the monarchy, an institution the military vows to protect.
The court has regularly ruled against parties that challenge the established order.
Dr Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a law lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said trust in the court had “continuously and quite consistently” fallen over the past decade. Speaking before the verdict, he said: “This kind of predictability is not very good for the court’s reputation.”
The ruling has important ramifications for next year’s election, according to Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate politics professor at Mahidol University. “It not only affects [Prayuth] but it will also affect the survival of the cabinet and also the pro-military Palang Pracharath party as well for the next elections. If he can still stay in power, it means they can control all the mechanisms that will support them for the next elections,” she said before the verdict.
Prayuth had been suspended from office while the court considered the matter, with Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a former army chief and close ally, acting as interim leader.
Friday’s ruling allows Prayuth to return to his position and, if re-elected, could remain in power until April 2025. Thailand is due to hold elections on 7 May 2023 at the latest.
His popularity, however, has waned, say analysts. “Prayut has suffered from lingering dissatisfaction with his undemocratic origins, anaemic economic performance, and simply voter fatigue after eight years at the helm,” said Ken Lohatepanont, a political analyst.
There was likely to be concerns among conservatives that Prayut would be unable to stop an election landslide by Pheu Thai, the party established by loyalists to the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Ken added.
Prayuth recently was ranked fourth, behind Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of Thaksin, in an opinion poll by the National Institute of Development Administration.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, while in 2014 the military removed the government of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was later forced from office by a court decision.
“The issue, however, is there is no obvious alternative for the conservative camp to turn to quiet yet,” Ken said. “No other candidate has the same degree of name recognition and acceptance among the conservative voter base as Prayut himself.”
In a statement on Facebook after the verdict, Prayuth said: “Over the past month, I have taken the chance to review and consider that I need to use my limited time to monitor and push the main projects that I have started, to move forward, to build prosperity and a future for our children.
“We have come a long way and in the right direction. We must help each other to achieve this.”
Additional reporting by Navaon Siradapuvadol