By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha can stay in office, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled Friday as it rejected an opposition petition that the ex-junta chief had exceeded his eight-year term limit, even as a recent poll found his popularity had waned.
Six members of the nine-judge panel voted in favor of clearing a path for reinstating Prayuth, 68, whom the court ordered to be suspended from his duties last month, pending the decision on the petition lodged in August by more than 170 opposition MPs.
The court counted Prayuth’s time in the office from the day that a military-backed constitution took effect on April 6, 2017. It did not count the nearly three previous years when he served as chief of the military government after leading a 2014 coup. The constitution was adopted before Prayuth became a full-fledged PM after the March 2019 general election, the nation’s first post-coup polls.
“To count the incumbent government’s tenure, it must coincide with the declaration of the 2017 Constitution … therefore the accused (Prayuth) started his tenure as PM on April 6, 2017,” Judge Panya Udchachon said during the televised hearing.
The ruling means Prayuth could serve as prime minister until April 5, 2025, the panel said.
During his suspension, Prayuth carried on in his parallel role as defense minister. The ruling by the court spared Prayuth from the prospect of being removed from office for good. However, he has been on shaky political ground lately, having survived four no-confidence votes against him in parliament since he was formally elected PM in 2019, including one this past July.
A public opinion poll in August found that more than 90 percent of respondents wanted Prayuth to vacate office immediately. More than 370,000 participated in the “People’s Voice” digital poll, launched by a network of eight universities and eight digital media outlets on Aug. 20 and 21.
On Thursday, the court barred public gatherings while riot police deployed water cannon trucks around the courthouse in Bangkok as pro-democracy groups threatened to stage a protest.
Prayuth remained at home as the court issued its ruling, according to reports, while protesters gathered in downtown Bangkok. He is expected to resume his duties as prime minister on Monday.
“I honor the verdict of the Constitutional Court and thank all the people who supported and wished me well,” Prayuth said in his Facebook page after the verdict, adding that the country was heading in the right direction to restore the economy.
While serving as chief of the Royal Thai Army, Prayuth led a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. Later, then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed him for prime minister on Aug. 24 of that year, under the 2014 interim constitution.
Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, suffered a similar military coup in 2006. The siblings both live in exile.
Thaksin, a billionaire who founded the Pheu Thai Party, continues to have power with party members. In August, he called for Prayuth to step down without waiting for the court’s decision. His youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 35, has led recent polling of potential prime minister candidates.
Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew filed a petition with the court last month, claiming Prayuth’s term ended on the eighth anniversary of his taking office after the coup.
Previously, Bangkok KhaoSod, an online news website, reported that constitution drafters Michai Ruchuphan and Suphot Khaimuk had said in a 2018 meeting memothat Prayuth would complete his eight-year term on Aug. 24, 2022.
The petition included the memo as evidence.
On Friday, the opposition parties issued a statement claiming the Court had ignored the intent of the Constitution, as they called on the government to respect protesters.
“To interpret the Constitution’s intent, besides its literal meaning, [one] must consider the intent of the constitutional drafting committee,” the statement said referring to Prayuth’s handpicked committee. “It is not alterable that Prayuth’s tenure must count from Aug. 24, 2014.”
Following the ruling, Cholnan said, “People predicted such an outcome. Prayuth must heed their calls of people and keep peace … treat the protesters civilly, don’t violate their rights.”
In the wake of the verdict, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Bangkok’s business district to denounce the ruling and threaten more street protests.
“Today, it’s clear that we cannot have faith in and count on the Thai judicial system. We will take to the streets and call on all of us to show them that we won’t yield,” protester Chatchai Kaedam told BenarNews.
On Friday, Ratsadorn, a group of university students, issued a statement challenging the ruling.
“It is clear that the apparatus of the tyranny, i.e. the Constitutional Court and the government, gain from the dictatorial regime. The court’s ruling is evil and unacceptable,” Ratsadorn said in a Facebook posting on Friday.
It called on people to dress in black for a week starting on Saturday to mourn “the political system and the Thai society’s future of the outlawed prime minister.”
The Constitutional Court has played an influential role in Thai politics. In 2006 and 2014, it canceled the results of general elections. More recently, it dissolved two parties before and after the 2019 general election, including the Future Forward Party, which had become the third largest in the parliament.
Since July 2020, pro-democracy demonstrators have demanded that Prayuth resign, the Constitution be amended and the monarchy be reformed.
As of August, more than 1,853 people have faced charges of sedition, computer crimes violations, or royal defamation.
Thannapat Jarernpanit, a political science lecturer at the Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, said Prayuth could decide his future before the next election to be held around May 2023.
“Prayuth may have two choices – dissolve the house to prepare for the next election and join his former coalition until he reaches the eight-year limit or, second, stay until the end of this four-year term and let the coalition leader Palang Pracharath Party lead the election and find his civilian successor,” said told BenarNews.
“The Constitutional Court usually considers any cases with a basic litigation mindset without daring to speak of violation of the Constitution or the coup which contradicts the rule of law.”
Surin Pinsuwan in Bangkok and Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.