9 June 2024

 Srettha Thavisin is the fifth prime minister to be tried by the Constitutional Court since it was established in October 1997 – two of his predecessors were found guilty and removed, while two others were spared.

The two premiers ousted by court rulings – Samak Sundaravej and Yingluck Shinawatra – were both considered proxies of ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, regarded as the patriarch of the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

The two spared were Thaksin himself and General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who took power in 2014 after ousting a Pheu Thai-led government in a military coup.

Political debutant Srettha is thus the third premier from the Thaksin camp to find himself in the Constitutional Court dock. The property tycoon-turned-politician was among three PM candidates nominated by Pheu Thai at the last election.

The party is currently being led by Thaksin’s youngest daughter, 37-year-old Paetongtarn.

 Allegation against Srettha

The court case stems from a petition filed by a group of 40 outgoing senators, accusing the prime minister of violating the Constitution in appointing former lawyer Phichit Chuenban as PM’s Office minister despite his prison record.

The senators cited Article 160 of the Constitution, which says ministers must have “evident integrity” and high ethical standards.

“Pichit is not qualified to be a government minister, yet the prime minister appointed him. So, the prime minister’s action may also have breached [constitutional] ethical standards,” said Senator Derekrid Janekrongtham, one of the complainants.

Pichit was jailed for six months for contempt of court while defending Thaksin in a 2008 case over a land deal. The Supreme Court’s Criminal Division on Political Officeholders found the ex-lawyer and two of his junior colleagues had offered a 2-million-baht bribe to court officials.

Critics claim Pichit was appointed to the Cabinet because of his close relationship with Thaksin, who still wields considerable political influence after returning to Thailand last year.

The former PM had spent 15 years overseas while facing several jail sentences in Thailand.

Srettha responded to the petition by insisting that Pichit’s appointment was “legitimate and lawful”. He said he had consulted the Council of State, the government’s legal advisor, before making the decision.

“I am confident that I can answer all the questions because my decisions are based on correct principles,” the premier said.

If found guilty, he could be removed from the post he has held since last August.

Timeline of the case

On May 15, the 40 senators filed their petition against Srettha and Pichit to the Senate president, who forwarded it to the charter court the next day.

Pichit protested but eventually handed in his resignation on May 21. He said he was stepping down to “protect the prime minister” and “allow the country to move forward”. He had been in the post for just 23 days.

On May 23, the Constitutional Court dropped the case against Pichit on grounds that he had quit. However, the court’s nine judges voted 6:3 to accept the case against Srettha, though in a 5:4 vote they decided not to suspend him pending the verdict.

The court gave Srettha 15 days or until Monday (June 10) to submit his defence. The trial is scheduled to start next Wednesday (June 12) and should take at least 15 days. The verdict could come as early as June 28.

Possible scenarios

Srettha has not sought to postpone submitting his explanation to the court, leading analysts to believe that he is confident the case will end in his favour.

They also believe Srettha improved his chance of surviving as PM recently by appointing legal guru Wissanu Krea-ngam as his adviser. Wissanu, a deputy PM in the last government, is credited with helping Prayut survive five Constitutional Court cases while in power.

However, if the court finds Srettha guilty, he will lose his seat, leading to another round of bargaining among political parties to form a new coalition government.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party would be the biggest loser were Srettha to be removed from office, say some analysts.

The biggest problem is that its two other PM candidates appear unprepared to replace Srettha as head of the next government. Party leader Paetongtarn, who gave birth to her second child a year ago, admitted late last month that she was not ready to become the next premier.

The other PM candidate, 75-year-old Chaikasem Nitisiri, has reportedly had health issues. He suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized while campaigning for last year’s general election.

If Srettha is removed as PM by court order, the law does not prohibit his nomination as the next prime minister. However, renomination in this scenario would be unlikely given the embarrassment it would cause to Srettha and Pheu Thai, observers say.

 Candidates to become next PM

If the court rules against Srettha and removes him from office, the House of Representatives would have to vote for a new prime minister. As per the Constitution, the candidates must be those who were nominated by political parties at last year’s general election. They must also come from parties with at least 25 MPs or 5% of the Lower House. The winner needs majority support of at least 251 votes from the 500-seat House.

Six political parties meet the criteria to nominate candidates – Move Forward (151 MPs), Pheu Thai (141), Bhumjaithai (71), Palang Pracharath (40), United Thai Nation (36), and the Democrat Party (25).

In the government coalition, Pheu Thai’s candidates are Srettha, Paetongtarn, and Chaikasem; Bhumjaithai’s sole candidate is party leader Anutin Charnvirakul; Palang Pracharath’s candidate is party leader General Prawit Wongsuwan; and United Thai Nation has former prime minister General Prayut and party leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga. Prayut, however, has retired from politics and become a member of the Privy Council.

In the opposition, Move Forward’s sole candidate is former party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, while the Democrats have former leader Jurin Laksanawisit.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk