11 July 2024

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s worries over his remaining time in office may have evaporated following an important resolution on the Constitutional Court president’s tenure.

Worawit Kangsasitiam can stay on in his post, after a powerful selection committee ruled on April 22 that his term will expire when he has served for nine years or reaches the age of 75, whichever comes first.

The unanimous decision was made by five members of the panel — the Supreme Court president and panel chair, the House of Representatives speaker, the opposition leader, the Supreme Administrative Court president, and a representative of the Election Commission.

The panel has nine members in total. However, the Office of the Ombudsman, National Anti‑Corruption Commission, State Audit Office, and National Human Rights Commission failed to nominate their representatives, according to Pheu Thai Party leader Chonlanan Srikaew, who joined the panel in his capacity as opposition leader.

Longer term from both charters

Worawit was appointed a Constitutional Court judge on September 9, 2014, when the previous constitution of 2007 was in force. Under that charter, Constitutional Court judges serve for nine years or until the age of 70, whichever comes first.

However, the current 2017 Constitution sets a seven-year term and an age limit of 75 for Constitutional Court judges.

When Worawit turned 70 on March 1, a legal question arose as to whether he could remain in office. In fact, if the seven-year term under the current charter had been enforced, Worawit should have vacated his position in September last year.

The question was which constitution should be applied to calculate his term — the one under which he was appointed or the current one. The selection committee finally opted for the longer term from both constitutions.

The three other Constitutional Court judges appointed under the 2007 charter — Twekiat Menakanist, Nakharin Mektrairat, and Punya Udchachon — will also benefit from the panel’s resolution.

Spectre of a substitute PM looms over Prayut

Comparison with Prayut’s case?

Critics say the panel interpreted the supreme law in a way that benefited the judges involved. They expect the judges to make a similar decision when the Constitutional Court rules on PM Prayut’s term, pointing to a long history of crucial rulings favorable to the powers-that-be.

The Constitution prohibits the prime minister from holding office for more than eight years in total, consecutively or not.

The opposition is expected to seek a Constitutional Court verdict as to whether Prayut’s tenure as PM should end on August 24, eight years after he first assumed the post following the military coup he led in May 2014.

However, the start date of the eight-year limit remains a key legal question. Is it when Prayut assumed his post in 2014, when the current Constitution came into force on April 6, 2017, or when Prayut was appointed by royal command as PM on June 9, 2019, after the general election in March that year.

Pheu Thai leader Chonlanan insists the ruling on the Constitutional Court president’s term limit should have no bearing on PM Prayut’s tenure, as the two cases differ in detail. The politician said Prayut’s eight-year term obviously ends in August this year, as it is stated clearly in the Constitution.

‘Limit meant for post-coup PMs’

Even those involved in drafting the current Constitution cannot agree on when the eight-year term should start.

However, legal expert and academic Jade Donavanik, a former adviser to the Constitution Drafting Assembly, said the time limit was imposed to prevent a “monopoly of power” by post-coup leaders.

“Throughout Thai political history, no elected prime minister has ever served more than eight years, either consecutively or not. Meanwhile, many prime ministers who came to power through a coup served longer than eight years,” he noted.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk