Thailand’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha can continue in office and that he had not surpassed his maximum eight-year term limit as premier.
The court, in a 25-minute reading of the verdict on Friday, said Prayuth’s tenure as prime minister should be counted from 2017, when a new constitution was promulgated.
The decision will be a boost for Prayuth, a staunch royalist whose premiership has been beset by attempts to unseat him, including four house censure motions, a conflict of interest case and major protests challenging his leadership and the monarchy.
Prayuth, 68, had been suspended from office while the court deliberated the case.
A spokesperson for Prayuth said he respected the ruling and thanked his supporters.
“From now, the prime minister will proceed to its completion so that the country will progress,” spokesperson Anucha Buraphashaisri said.
Prayuth’s critics had argued that his time in office should be calculated from 2014, when he took power as army commander in the aftermath of a coup that removed Thailand’s elected Pheu Thai party government.
Supporters of Prayuth had maintained that his term in office should be calculated from at least 2017, or from when Prayuth took office after his election as a civilian prime minister in 2019.
The nine-member court said in its majority opinion on Friday that because the constitution came into effect after Prayuth had already taken power, the term limit did not apply to the time he had previously served, since the constitution did not specify if it could be applied retroactively.
Pro-democracy activists greeted the news on Friday with calls for anti-Prayuth supporters to dress in black as a sign of mourning “for the death of Thailand’s future”, local media reported.
In a surprise move, Prayuth was suspended as prime minister in August by the Constitutional Court, which had accepted a petition from Thailand’s political opposition calling for it to rule on whether the premier had exhausted his time in office.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has served as Thailand’s caretaker premier since Prayuth’s suspension. Prawit and Prayuth are former army commanders and were comrades in arms for decades.
Though suspended from his role as premier, Prayuth has remained in the cabinet as Thailand’s defence minister.
Prayuth went to work at the Defence Ministry on Friday morning, according to reports, and was expected to return to his residence to hear the court’s ruling in the afternoon.
Mark Cogan, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, said earlier on Friday that a likely scenario would be the court ruling that Prayuth’s term started with the new constitution in 2017.
“That’s probably the most likely solution,” Cogan said, adding that such an outcome would inflict “the least damage politically” and allowed for “a smooth transition” for Prayuth.
Courts in Thailand, like the military, are a key element of the nation’s ruling elite and have consistently turned back challenges that might upend Thailand’s established political and social order.
Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Prayuth has been a “highly ineffective prime minister,” and Thais are furious that he wants to continue in power.
“As a result of Prayuth’s continued autocratic rule, as well as generally poor policy management, anger among the political opposition in Thailand is at a boil,” Kurlantzick wrote recently.
Kurlantzick told Al Jazeera prior to the ruling that if the court decided upon the 2014 start date – which would mean that Prayuth leaves office – less turmoil could be expected as it would demonstrate “a modicum of independence by the court”.
“If any later date is announced, I think it will spark significant turmoil, and Thailand is already a tinderbox,” he said.
Though back in the prime minister’s seat, Prayuth still faces a political reckoning early next year when Parliament’s four-year term expires and a new election must be called.
Kurlantzick said that if the election next year is “free and fair (a big if)”, it would likely be won by a coalition of pro-democracy parties.
Criticism of Prayuth
Controversy over the length of Prayuth’s time in office is only the latest episode in nearly two decades of intermittent political turmoil in Thailand, including coups and violent protests, stemming from opposition to military involvement in politics, and demands for greater representation as political awareness grows.
Prayuth’s political star had been waning even before his suspension from office. He had become the focus of large youth-led pro-democracy rallies in Bangkok in 2020 that had called for his resignation and for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy reformed.
He had also come in for criticism over his apparent poor management of the Thai economy, the country’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his own rise to power with the 2014 military coup, which critics say was illegitimate.
An opinion poll in early August showed Prayuth’s popularity plummeting, with nearly two-thirds of people surveyed wanting him to leave office, while a third preferred to wait for the court ruling.
Several confrontations between the student-driven protest movement and authorities have become violent.
Activists had threatened new protests if the court favoured Prayuth, raising fears of more unrest.