Thai PM suspended as court mulls over whether he defied term limits

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s government held its first official meetings on Thursday under an interim prime minister, after a court ordered the suspension of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha a day earlier when he was examining whether he had violated the legal limits of the mandate.

Prayuth’s impeachment will likely only be temporary since the Constitutional Court has generally ruled in favor of the government in a host of political cases. Tipanan Sirichana, deputy spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said the court ruling meant Prayuth was suspended until a final ruling, although no date was set for that.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan assumed the role of acting Prime Minister, taking over Prayuth’s duties. On Thursday, he chaired a committee meeting on national disaster communications that he was previously scheduled to attend.

Prayuth, although suspended as Prime Minister, retained his other Cabinet post as Defense Minister and as such he attended a monthly meeting of the Government Defense Council, participating via video .

Any court ruling allowing Prayuth to remain prime minister risks invigorate a protest movement who has long sought to oust him and reopen deep fissures in Thailand, which has been rocked by repeated outbursts of political chaos since a coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

Since then, Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire whose populist appeal threatened the traditional power structure, has remained at the center of the country’s politics, as his supporters and opponents have fought for power both at the polls and in the street, sometimes violently. The 2014 takeover ousted its sister government from power.

Spokeswoman Anucha Burapachaisri said Prayuth would respect the court’s decision and called on others to do the same. But those who I want Prayuth gone nor do they want Prawit, a close political ally of Prayuth and part of the same military clique that staged the coup, in power.

“No prayer. No Prawit. No military coup government,” a prominent protest group said in a statement after Wednesday’s court ruling.

The group known as Ratsadon, or The People, issued a new call to protest, but only a small number responded.

Prayuth’s critics argue he violated a law that limits prime ministers to eight years in office – a threshold they say they reached on Tuesday since he officially became prime minister on August 24, 2014.

But his supporters argue that his term should be counted from when the current constitution, which contains the term limit provision, came into force in 2017. Another interpretation would start the clock in 2019, when he got the job legally after a general election.

The case – in which the court decides whether a putschist has stayed in power too long – has highlighted Thailand’s particular political culture: often the soldiers who overthrow elected leaders then attempt to legitimize their regime and defuse the opposition by organizing elections and respecting the constitutional restrictions. .

By a 5-4 vote on Wednesday, the court agreed to suspend the prime minister from office while he considers a petition from opposition MPs. The court announcement said Prayuth must submit his defense within 15 days of receiving a copy of the complaint, but he did not say when he would rule. The decision allowed him to stay on in his other post as defense minister.

Polls show Prayuth’s popularity at an all-time low, with voters blaming him for mismanaging the economy and botching Thailand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Prayuth and his cabinet resign, while also calling for changes to the constitution and reform of the monarchy.

Several clashes between the student protest movement and the authorities turned violent. A judicial crackdown on activists has further embittered critics.

Small protests again calling on Prayuth to step down – and the Constitutional Court to force him if he doesn’t – have been taking place daily since Sunday, but have drawn only small crowds.

” I am very happy. General Prayuth stayed for a long time and had no vision for the country’s development,” Wuttichai Tayati, a 28-year-old who works in marketing, said at a protest in Bangkok on Wednesday. “At least taking it out for now might get Thailand a little bit further.”

Even if Prayuth leaves, replacing him with Prawit will not resolve the impasse.

In addition to his close association with the military clique that seized power, Prawit, 77, has been marred by allegations that he illegally amassed a luxury watch collection s he could not afford a government salary, although a court accepted his explanation that they were gifts and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

It is unclear whether Prawit would accept or be able to take over as prime minister if the court rules against Prayuth. He has publicly acknowledged his poor health and is best known as a behind-the-scenes political organizer.

Some legal scholars believe that the eventual replacement should come from the small group of candidates that the country’s political parties nominated for the post after the 2019 general election. This list did not include Prawit, although it seems possible that he could be named in the event of an impasse.

If he is not forced to resign, Prayuth must call new elections by March, although he has the option of calling one before then.

The eight-year limit was intended to target Thaksin, whose political machine remains powerful. The 2014 coup overthrew the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand’s traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, saw Thaksin’s popularity as a threat to the country’s monarchy as well as his own influence. The courts have been staunch defenders of the established order and have consistently ruled against Thaksin and other challengers.

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This version corrects that meetings were held on Thursday under Acting Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan but did not include a Cabinet meeting.

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