(Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s Constitutional Court surprised the nation last week by suspending Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former army chief who first took power in a 2014 coup and stayed on following an election five years later.
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The court, whose members were largely picked by a military-appointed Senate, took the action while it deliberates on whether Prayuth exceeded an eight-year term limit added into the post-coup constitution. That provision was intended to prevent popular elected leaders from holding power too long, particularly after the army forcibly removed Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014.
The court’s move has fueled speculation that Thailand’s royal establishment is looking to replace Prayuth ahead of an election that must be called by March 2023. Although election rules still favor the military-backed group to retain power, it faces stiff competition against the Pheu Thai party backed by Thaksin, whose allies have won the most seats in every national vote over the past 21 years.
“The power that Prayuth seized eight years ago has very much declined,” said Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor at Thammasat University. “The suspension came despite previous favorable rulings in the coupmaker’s favor, making people anxious about what’s going to happen next.”
Here’s how the situation may play out over the next few months:
1. Court Rules Prayuth Hasn’t Exceeded Term Limit, Can Return
A favorable court ruling for Prayuth means he can immediately stay on as prime minister and complete his four-year term in March. But the decision will still help decide whether he remains the ruling party’s candidate heading into the next election.
If the court says Prayuth’s term started in June 2019, when he was named prime minister of a civilian government, then he can still serve another full four-year term. But if it puts the start date at April 2017, when the constitution became effective, then it makes it more likely he’ll be replaced by the ruling party before the next vote.
Polls show Prayuth is deeply unpopular and the economy is on course for the slowest expansion in Southeast Asia this year. An opinion poll published in June showed Prayuth significantly behind Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who is Thaksin’s daughter.
2. Court Rules Prayuth Has Exceeded Term Limit, Must Leave
A ruling against Prayuth means that he’ll immediately lose power and no political party can nominate him as a prime minister candidate in the next election. The cabinet would also need to step down and serve as caretakers until parliament picks a new leader. Legal experts are split on whether Prayuth can stay on as caretaker, saying the constitution doesn’t give clarity on this point.
One potential issue for the military establishment is who would immediately replace Prayuth. The House of Representatives and the Senate must select a new leader from a list approved before the 2019 polls, and Prayuth was the only military-friendly candidate.
If none of the other candidates get more than half the votes, then parliament can nominate others with the support of two-thirds of the combined National Assembly. One choice may be Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, another former army chief who is now serving as caretaker prime minister while Prayuth is suspended.
This scenario may impact Thailand’s global image, given the country is set to host world leaders including at a summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation economies in November. Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has said the suspension won’t affect Thailand’s plans for the event.
3. Prayuth Resigns Before Court Ruling
By law, Prayuth can resign as prime minister at any time -- even during his suspension. This means the whole cabinet would step into a caretaker capacity until lawmakers and the Senate select a new prime minister.
In this scenario, legal experts are not all in agreement on whether Prayuth becomes interim prime minister given he has been suspended. Prawit would therefore likely stay on as caretaker after Prayuth resigns.
Still, this scenario is considered unlikely since Prayuth could’ve already heeded protester demands and left prior to his suspension.
“If the establishment had wanted Prayuth to step down, his resignation ahead of the decision would’ve been more graceful way with the display of his political spirit,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
4. Court Delays Ruling Until Next Elections
There isn’t a set time for when the Constitutional Court must issue a ruling, raising the possibility that it could drag out the process all the way until the the government’s term ends in March next year. In practice, this risks fueling further frustration among voters and could spark protests.
It would also leave Prayuth’s status unclear heading into the next election, raising the prospect that the ruling party opts for another candidate to end the uncertainty. Analysts have said it wouldn’t make sense to delay the verdict for longer than two months given his suspension was likely aimed at lowering the political temperature in Thailand.
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