Thailand’s Constitutional Court has suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from official duties, after deciding to hear a petition seeking a review of his legally mandated eight-year term limit.
Though Prayuth could be restored to his position when the court makes its ruling, his surprise suspension on Wednesday threw Thai politics into confusion.
“The court has considered the petition and related documents and sees that the facts from the petition are cause for questioning as demanded,” the court said in a statement.
“Thus, a majority vote (five against four) for (Prayuth) to be suspended as prime minister, effective August 24, 2022, until the court issues a verdict.”
The petition was filed on Monday by the main opposition party, which argued that Prayuth’s time spent as head of a military government after he staged a coup when he was Thailand’s army chief in 2014 should count towards his constitutionally stipulated eight-year term.
Prayuth has 15 days to respond, the court told media in a statement, adding that a panel of judges ruled five to four in favour of his suspension from duties, starting from Wednesday.
It was not clear when the court would deliver a final ruling on the petition.
Prawit Wongsuwan, one of Prayuth’s deputies and another former Thai army chief, will take over as caretaker prime minister while the case is decided.
“The current cabinet will continue its duty as normal because General Prayuth has not been removed from his post, only suspended from duty,” said Wissanu Krea-ngam, another deputy prime minister.
Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the opposition Move Forward Party, which was among those that backed the petition, said the country needed new leadership.
“It is like rowing a boat round the bathtub, going from General Prayuth to General Prawit,” Pita told reporters at parliament.
‘He’ll still be very much involved’
Prayuth ruled as head of a military council after he overthrow an elected government in 2014, and became a civilian prime minister in 2019, following an election held under a military-drafted constitution.
Thailand’s next general election is due by May 2023.
Tony Cheng, reporting for Al Jazeera from Bangkok, said that as Prayuth is also the defence minister, he will remain very much engaged in government despite his suspension as prime minister.
“He’ll still be in government. He’ll still be a member of the cabinet, and he’ll still be very much involved. That said, I think this is going to be seen by the protesters as something of a victory. They’ve been chipping away at Prayuth Chan-ocha’s position for a couple of years now.”
Before the announcement was made, it was not expected that the court would rule against Prayuth, Cheng said earlier.
“The court has generally backed this government and five of those nine judges have been put in place by Prayuth’s administration,” he said.
“I think this is the opposition parties really trying to increase the pressure on Prayuth. There has been a feeling that his administration has mismanaged certain affairs, including the COVID shutdowns and, increasingly, a cost of living crisis that is hitting many Thais in the pocket.”
The former army chief came to power in a military coup that overthrew Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government.
He headed the military government for five years and continued as prime minister after national elections in 2019.
Pro-democracy activists have campaigned against Prayuth and his government, arguing that the 2019 election was not legitimate.
In its review request, the main opposition party argued that Prayuth should leave office this month because his time as chief of the military government that seized power should count towards his term in office.
Some supporters argue his term started in 2017, when a new constitution took effect, or after the 2019 election, meaning that he should be allowed to stay in power until 2025 or 2027, if elected.
The stern, blunt-speaking Prayuth has found himself increasingly out of favour with voters. A recent opinion poll found two-thirds of respondents wanted him to vacate office immediately.
The controversy is the latest for Thailand, a country that has suffered intermittent political turmoil for nearly two decades, including two military coups and violent protests.
Under Prayuth’s watch, the kingdom registered its worst economic performance in 30 years and his government has also faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic.
Youth-led pro-democracy rallies in Bangkok in 2020 attracted tens of thousands of people at their peak, and a key demand of the movement was for Prayuth to resign.
The protest movement at one point attracted crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 in Bangkok. Several confrontations with the authorities grew violent. A legal crackdown on activists, arrested in many cases under a law against insulting the monarchy because of their criticism of the royal institution, has embittered Prayuth’s critics more.
Riot police outside Government House this morning as they still anticipate a rally against PM Prayut. #BangkokPost #Thailand #politics pic.twitter.com/t3brBorAEk
— Bangkok Post (@BangkokPostNews) August 24, 2022
The student-led demonstrations petered out over the past couple of years, with the imposition of COVID-19 bans on gatherings.
But activists gathered again this week in anticipation of the court decision.
On Wednesday, police had placed shipping containers on some streets near government buildings in anticipation of new protests.