11 July 2024

All eyes are on the Constitutional Court today when it’s expected to start deliberating a petition by the opposition bloc that would determine Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s political future.

The midnight “deadline” set by anti-Prayut demonstrators for the prime minister to quit passed without any signs that he would relent.  They vowed more street demonstrations to force Prayut out of office.

The petition seeking a ruling on Prayut’s eight-year term of office was submitted to the Constitutional Court by Parliament President Chuan Leekpai on Monday.


What is at issue?

The opposition bloc and government critics insist that Prayut’s term began on August 24, 2014 when he was first appointed prime minister following the coup a few months earlier.  Since the current Constitution imposes an eight-year term limit on the prime minister, Prayut should have already served out his office term at midnight of August 23, according to their argument.

Another school of thoughts, however, insists that the Constitution, which was promulgated in 2017, doesn’t apply retroactively. So, they insisted that Prayut’s term effectively began in 2017, and not 2014.  That would mean Prayut can continue to serve out his current term and even stay on as prime minister for at least another two years after the next general elections – provided he is reappointed.

Another argument put forth by Prayut’s proponents is that he was appointed to his office only in 2019 following the general elections in March that year. And according to the letters of the Constitution, that was when his current term of office started.

The three arguments have become a heated topic of debate among political gurus and legal experts over the past several weeks. But eventually, the final decision will rest with the Constitutional Court.


What to expect?

The Constitutional Court will have its regular meeting today but it’s still unclear whether a ruling can be expected – or whether the court will decide the petition deserves its deliberation at all.  In the event the court takes up the petition, speculation abounds as to how long the deliberation process will take. Some legal experts insist that since the issue involves largely legal points, it shouldn’t take the court too long to come up with a decision. But others argue that the court has a procedure to follow and can’t be seen as too hasty.  That means it may take up to weeks or even months before a ruling can be expected.

But a pressing question at the moment is what should happen to Prayut as the court deliberates on his future.

If the court rejects the petition, legally speaking the whole saga would be put to rest – but it doesn’t mean the street protests would subside or the opposition bloc would sit on its hands.

But if the court accepts the petition for consideration, the question is whether Prayut should continue to function as prime minister.  Prayut’s critics want the court to issue an injunction to suspend him from performing his prime ministerial duty pending its final ruling.

If that’s the case, then one of the deputy prime ministers will be made caretaker prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s top legal expert, has said that the first in line is Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

But if the court accepts the petition but doesn’t issue an injunction against him, Prayut will continue to serve with full power as prime minister, including the mandate to dissolve Parliament.


Best/worst-case scenario for Prayut

If eventually the court ruling is in Prayut’s favour, then he can take back his job or continue to serve as prime minister (depending on whether there is an injunction or not).  But in this scenario, his long-term political future depends when the court rules his term of office started – 2017 or 2019.

However, there is no guarantee that such ruling will be accepted by his critics, especially those anti-government demonstrators who have already dubbed him “illegitimate prime minister”.

The worst-case scenario for Prayut will see the Constitutional Court rules that his eight-year office term has already expired. (But don’t forget the fact that Prayut also doubles as defence minister, which means he will still be around in the Cabinet). In this scenario, the Parliament will start the process of electing a new prime minister — to be chosen from among the candidates put forth by major political parties in the general elections back in 2019.

The new prime minister and his or her new government will serve out the rest of the current political term which ends in March next year when new general elections are expected.

By Thepchai Yong