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Has time run out for Thailand’s prime minister?

Prayuth helped engineer a new constitution. Its term limits now complicate his political future.

Thai caretaker Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan presides over a cabinet meeting in Bangkok on Aug. 30 while sitting next to the chair where suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha normally sits. (AFP/Getty Images)

Thailand’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body, temporarily suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from his duties on Aug. 24. After launching a military coup in 2014, Prayuth presided over the kingdom of 70 million people. But the constitution he helped engineer after the coup limits prime ministers to eight years in power — a limit he may have hit last month — prompting the court to step in.

What happens now? For the former general, the court ruling is one of the most serious challenges to his grip on power yet, and his ambitions for an additional term as prime minister could implode as a result. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan assumed the role of acting prime minister and their relationship is not without friction.

Even if he survives the court ruling, the increasingly unpopular Prayuth also faces a number of other challenges ahead of elections slated for no later than spring 2023. These include a sagging economy, a third year of student protests and potential opposition from the strongly royalist and ascendant Wongthewan military faction.

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Thailand’s coup maker became prime minister

Prayuth previously served as commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army. In May 2014, after a series of mass protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra brought Thailand’s politics to a standstill, Prayuth announced a military coup that toppled the Yingluck administration. He then suspended the constitution and appointed himself as prime minister.

The military junta set to work at writing a new constitution. Having learned from the mistakes of the previous junta following the previous coup in 2006, the drafters included a number of features designed to make military influence a more permanent feature of Thai politics. Though the 2017 constitution paved the way for a general election in 2019, a combination of post-election interpretations of the new electoral rules by the Constitutional Court and the weight of a 250-member Senate appointed by the junta to help select the prime minister saw Prayuth continuing in that role.

As the face of the 2014 coup, Prayuth is deeply unpopular with the more liberal and progressive segment of Thailand’s populace, especially the younger generation. Blunders over the handling of coronavirus outbreaks and less-than-impressive economic growth throughout his eight years in power prompted four no-confidence motions in parliament since 2019.

What does the constitution say?

Ironically, the 2017 constitution drafted under military rule has become a key obstacle to the continuation of Prayuth’s rule. The constitution states that no prime minister may serve for more than eight years. The clear target of this provision was Thaksin Shinawatra — Thailand’s former prime minister and bogeyman of the conservative establishment who was ousted in the 2006 coup. Prayuth now finds himself struggling against the term limits his allies imposed, as he reached the eight-year mark on Aug. 24. That’s why Thailand’s opposition petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule that Prayuth must step down.

In a leaked court argument, Prayuth’s legal team made the case that he has not breached the term limit because he came to power under a temporary constitution drafted as a stopgap during military rule, and as such the 2017 constitution’s term limits could not be retroactively applied. Another leaked legal opinion, provided by Meechai Ruchupan, the former chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, provided a similar view. According to these interpretations, Prayuth’s tenure would have started in 2017 — giving him three more years to serve.

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How deep is Prawit’s base of support?

While the Constitutional Court deliberates on Prayuth’s tenure, Prawit Wongsuwan serves as acting prime minister. Prawit wields massive influence behind the scenes of the ruling party, according to Paul Chambers of Naresuan University. Hailing from the same Eastern Tigers faction of the Thai army, Prayuth and Prawit share close ties. However, events since the 2019 general election indicate that all is not well in their relationship — a faction allied with Prawit attempted to engineer a no-confidence vote against Prayuth last year, for instance. In a surprising move, the cabinet recently amended the law to grant Prawit greater power over budget and personnel appointments than caretakers previously had.

Should Prawit’s ascension to power be made permanent, it would end an unusual arrangement in Thailand’s parliamentary democracy. Prayut was never a member of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, while Prawit has served as its leader. Party members often criticized Prayuth for being aloof and inattentive to party affairs — Prawit, in contrast, has played a key role in holding the coalition together. A new party, the Ruam Paendin Party, recently suggested that it may support Prawit for the premiership at the next election if he is healthy enough.

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Don’t count Prayuth out

Despite these challenges, the chances are good that Prayuth could cling to power. After all, the court has ruled in his favor in the past. Notably, in 2019, a controversy arose over whether Prayuth had violated the law, as a section of the constitution prohibits a current state official from running for the premiership. The court found that Prayuth as head of the National Council for Peace and Order, the military body that supervised the government was known at the time, was not a state official.

In addition, Prayuth still has a trump card in Thai establishment politics as the most well-known political figure — and he remains somewhat popular with the conservative base. In contrast, Prawit’s advanced age and greater unpopularity with the public makes it doubtful that he would succeed as a long-term prime minister.

No other frontrunner has emerged as a clear choice for successor, though the rival Wongthewan military faction, or King’s Guard, which is seen as especially royalist and has ties to big business, could seize its chance at the top government post. More than likely, however, Prayuth will be running for another term in office next year.

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Ken Mathis Lohatepanont is a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan.

Allen Hicken is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and co-author of Mobilizing for Elections: Patronage and Political Machines in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Joel Selway is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and author of “Coalitions of the Well-being: How Electoral Rules and Ethnic Politics Shape Health Policy in Developing Countries” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).