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Thailand’s Opposition Parties to Ask Court Whether PM’s Time Is Up

FILE - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, left, speaks to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida after their meeting in Tokyo, May 26, 2022.
FILE - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, left, speaks to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida after their meeting in Tokyo, May 26, 2022.

Thailand’s opposition parties say Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is bound by law to step down next month. With all signs suggesting he plans to stay put, however, the parties say they will ask the country’s Constitutional Court to settle a debate dividing politicians and lawyers alike.

The constitution says a prime minister can serve no more than eight years, whether consecutively or split up.

The opposition claims the clock started ticking for Prayut on August 24, 2014, the day then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed him as prime minister, and three months after he seized power in a military coup that toppled an elected government. By that count, Prayut would have to resign by August 23.

Local media reports, citing unnamed sources, say legal advisers to the House of Representatives have concluded that Prayut’s first four-year term actually started in June 2019, when the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, endorsed him as prime minister a month after he won a controversial election tilted in his favor. Prayut himself has said he intends to serve out his current term through March, the deadline for new elections.

FILE - This handout from the Royal Thai Government taken and released on Aug. 13, 2020 shows Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaking after a cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok.
FILE - This handout from the Royal Thai Government taken and released on Aug. 13, 2020 shows Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaking after a cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok.

Prayut’s coup knocked the popular Pheu Thai party from power; it’s now the largest party in the opposition. Spokeswoman Theerarat Samrejvanich said Pheu Thai plans to join forces with five other opposition parties in calling on the Constitutional Court to settle the controversy over Prayut’s tenure in the coming weeks.

“We have plans to do that,” she told VOA. “We [are] looking to ask to the Constitutional Court about this problem.”

Prayut’s official time as prime minister, she said, “begins from the date that Mr. Prayut Chan-ocha became the prime minister on the first day, and we count day by day and month by month and year by year, and the 23rd of August must be the last day of the eight years.”

Rangsiman Rome, a lawmaker and spokesman for Move Forward, another opposition party, said it would join in the court filing.

“We agreed that we have to report this case to the Constitution Court because we believe that, by the constitution, Mr. Prime Minister cannot be [more] than eight years, and the way that we count, we count from since he started to be the prime minister in fact,” he said.

Government spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said he would not comment on the controversy, without explanation. Prayut and his cabinet, though, have given no sign of making plans to step down next month.

In May, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who handles legal affairs for the government, told reporters the administration would abide by any court ruling on the debate but would not seek a ruling itself.

“The government will not ask for a Constitutional Court ruling on that matter since we have had no doubt about it in the first place,” he said, without elaborating.

The controversy is not dividing just political opinion.

“The legal community is the same,” said Jade Donavanik, a legal scholar who served as an adviser to the ad hoc committee that drafted the current constitution.

Besides those who argue for 2014 or 2019, he said some lawyers believe Prayut’s time as prime minister actually began in April 2017, when the constitution took effect, while Thailand was still in the grip of Prayut’s military junta.

Jade himself agrees with the opposition, for two main reasons. The first is Article 158, which lays out the eight-year rule. The second is Article 264, which says the council of ministers seated the day before the constitution takes effect will remain the council of ministers after the charter comes into force.

“So, when it’s said that way, that the Cabinet prior to constitutional effectiveness will be the cabinet subsequent to the Constitution coming into effect, that means the term of Gen. Prayut, who was the prime minister prior to the constitution’s effective date, will still be the prime minister and will be the prime minister on and on. So, I read from Article 158 as well as Article 264 to mean that Gen. Prayut’s term started 2014,” said Jade, referring to the prime minister by his former military rank.

Udom Rathamarit, a former law professor who co-wrote the 2017 charter, has publicly endorsed the interpretation that Prayut’s official time as prime minister started in 2019. Should that position hold, Prayut could potentially remain in office until 2027.

Prayut has not explicitly stated his intention to run in the coming elections. But political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak says the prime minister has sent “clear signals” he would, and that his party, Palang Pracharath, has shown no one else as an obvious alternative.

He also doubts the Constitutional Court would stand in his way. Most of the court’s current justices were appointed since the 2014 coup, and they have already made a number of controversial decisions in his administration’s favor.

Thitinan, a political science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said Prayut’s last real test before the coming polls was the confidence vote in parliament on July 23 — which he won — that capped a three-day censure debate arranged by the opposition.

“After the censure debate, he’s now got a clear path toward the next election and he seems to be running,” he said. “So ... I would be extremely surprised if the Constitutional Court is going to be the agency to derail his bid, because the judges were picked mostly from the junta era.”

Actually winning the coming elections is another matter.

In a recent survey on possible candidates for prime minister, Prayut finished third behind senior figures in the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties. Though the prime minister is not popularly elected, Thitinan said any decision by the Constitutional Court that lets Prayut serve past August would only hurt his party in the coming polls.

“The sentiment is going to go against him and the Palang Pracharath party, and the Constitutional Court ruling, in the event that it goes in his favor, which I expect, will be part of that, meaning that it will be part of the adverse sentiment against him,” he said.

If Prayut is forced to resign next month, the popularly elected House of Representatives and the junta-appointed Senate would hold a joint vote to choose a new prime minister.