Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been temporarily sidelined as the country’s leader, but will remain defense minister, a government spokesman said.
The unusual leadership reshuffle follows a ruling by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday, ordering Prayut to step aside as it considers whether he has violated the eight-year term recently enshrined in the constitution.
Prayut took on the role of prime minister after a military coup in 2014 before winning a controversial general election in 2019.
In the meantime, he ordered the kingdom’s constitution to be rewritten, prohibiting the prime minister from serving for more than eight years in office. But the question now is whether Prayut has crossed his own line.
Earlier this week, the court accepted a petition signed by 172 opposition lawmakers alleging Prayut’s rule began in 2014, when he took power during the coup. The court is also likely to consider whether his term officially began in 2017, when the constitution was rewritten, or even in 2019, after the election.
Five of the nine constitutional court judges agreed on Wednesday that Prayut should be suspended while the court considers the case, but did not provide a timeline for the ruling. The court gave Prayut 15 days to file a counter statement as to why he should keep the job, once he formally receives the procedural document.
In a statement, Prayut’s office said it respects the court’s decision.
The order “will not affect the governance of the nation, the work performed by officials or the ongoing policies of the government,” the statement said.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan is acting as prime minister while the court considers a final verdict, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told reporters on Wednesday. Prawit himself is a former army chief and a long-time supporter of the Thai monarchy.
According to the constitution, new elections will be held in May next year, but the incumbent prime minister still has the power to call early elections by dissolving the elected House of Representatives.
Prayut has survived four no-confidence motions in recent months and it looks like he will remain in power until the election, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
But critics say it’s time for him to go.
“There’s been some economic mismanagement, politics is still polarized. For the past eight years since he’s been prime minister — or since he’s been prime minister — Thailand hasn’t done well,” said Thitinan.
Although the youth-led protests seem to have subsided of late, he said it was because some leaders of the movement had been persecuted and grievances about Prayut’s government still persist.
Prayut’s rule as the leader of a military coup who became prime minister was marred by growing authoritarianism and rising inequality.
The former military leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 2014 that overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra after six months of civil unrest and violent street protests.
But shortly after the takeover, Prayut banned all political campaigns, including political gatherings of more than five people. During his leadership, hundreds of activists have been arrested and charged under draconian laws such as sedition or the lèse majesté – which prohibit criticism of the royal family.
In 2020, young people across the country defied threats from the military-backed government to take to the streets and call for Prayut’s resignation. The mass protests stemmed from failed promises to restore democracy, and what activists say is a crackdown on civil rights and freedoms.
The military government’s mismanagement in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and economics, nepotism and lack of transparency and accountability also bolstered calls for Prayut to resign.
Discontent with the kingdom’s military government and monarchy continued well into 2021.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne in 2016 and was crowned in May 2019, is said to spend much of his time abroad and was largely absent from public life in Thailand as the country struggled with the coronavirus pandemic.
Since he became king, billions of dollars in assets from the Thai Crown have been transferred to Vajiralongkorn, confirming his control over royal finances and vastly increasing his personal wealth, drawing ire from the public who are supposed to revere the monarchy.