Thailand’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha can remain in his job and did not violate a constitutional provision limiting him to eight years in office.
Opposition legislators had petitioned the court to decide on their claim that Mr Prayuth, who took power as army commander after a 2014 coup, has violated the eight-year limit for prime ministers that was included for the first time in Thailand’s 2017 constitution.
He officially became prime minister in a military government in August 2014, and was named as premier again after a 2019 election. Using 2014 as a starting date, he would have reached his legal limit last month.
He and his supporters argued that the countdown for the term limit should begin when the current constitution came into effect in April 2017, which would allow him to serve until 2025 if he is returned to office after the next general election.
The nine-member court said in a majority opinion that because the constitution came into effect after Mr Prayuth had already taken power, the term limit did not apply to the time he had previously served, since the constitution did not specify it could be applied retroactively.
He will still face a political reckoning early next year when parliament’s four-year term expires and a new election must be called. His popularity ratings are low, with critics saying he has mishandled the economy and botched Thailand’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Mr Prayuth and his cabinet resign, and calling for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy reformed.
Several confrontations between the student-driven protest movement and authorities became violent.
Activists have threatened new protests if the court favoured Mr Prayuth, raising fears of more unrest.
The protest movement was weakened by Covid-19 restrictions and repression from the government, and only about 30 people answered a call to demonstrate on Friday in central Bangkok, shouting insults as they listed to the court’s verdict over a loudspeaker.
Chai-amorn Kaewwiboonpan, a musician and veteran activist also known as Ammy, said the ruling was no surprise, adding: “I think tomorrow the people will come out on the streets, and hopefully we will have a lot of people.”
Mr Prayuth paid his respects to the court on his Facebook page and thanked those Thais who he said had given him good wishes and encouragement since the court took up the case.
“It was the opportunity for me to realise that I must spend the government’s limited remaining time to follow up and push several important projects that I have initiated, and complete them for the country’s progress and our children’s future,” he said.
Last month, the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended him from carrying out a prime minister’s duties pending its ruling. The senior deputy prime minister in his cabinet, Prawit Wongsuwan, became acting prime minister, while Mr Prayuth retained his concurrent position of defence minister.
If he had been been forced out on Friday, power would have been ceded to a caretaker government with limited executive powers, assembled from the current cabinet, that would have sat until parliament elected a new prime minister.
The eight-year term limit was meant to target former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who was ousted by a 2006 military coup but whose political machine remains powerful.
The army in 2014 also ousted the government of Mr Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from office shortly before the takeover by a controversial court decision.
Thailand’s traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, felt that Mr Thaksin’s popularity posed a threat to the country’s monarchy as well as their own influence. The courts have been stalwart defenders of the established order and ruled consistently against him and other challengers.
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