The suspension of Thailand’s unpopular prime minister, Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, was given a lukewarm welcome Thursday by pro-democracy forces, who say his replacement — another elderly ex-army chief — shows the same authoritarian players still dominate national politics.
Prayuth was suspended from office Wednesday by the country’s constitutional court, while the bench deliberates whether he has hit the eight-year term limit.
The limit was introduced in a constitution written by Prayuth’s allies after he toppled the elected government in 2014 as army chief, promising to stay on only as long as necessary to remedy years of division and political violence.
But eight years later he has refused to step down, staggering on through waves of mass protests, economic crises, no confidence votes in parliament and even the loss of some of his key political allies.
His deputy and longtime political wingman, Prawit Wongsuwan, takes over as caretaker until the court delivers its final ruling, which could take several weeks.
But hopes of a quick change of momentum for Thailand’s battered democracy movement were hard to find with the 77-year-old Prawit now steering the government.
Some speculate that the constitutional court — which has toppled democratically elected leaders and taken out their election-winning parties in favor of the conservative establishment — is just making a show of its neutrality as the country prepares for elections, likely early next year.
“This changes nothing as Prayuth or Prawit both come from the same power structure,” said prominent pro-democracy activist Attapon Buapat.
“The court suspended Prayuth only to calm the public in the next weeks or months when it again rules in favor of the establishment. It’s all just a game.”
It is too early to predict a likely winner of the next election, experts say, as the widespread unpopularity of Prayuth’s government may not reflect their ability to pull together a working coalition.
Thalufah, a youth-led reform group galvanized by years of anti-Prayuth protests, tweeted “Thailand is going down” with the frail Prawit as acting premier.
“When Prayuth was PM, Thailand was standing at the edge of a cliff,” one Twitter user wrote. “Now that Prawit is acting PM, Thailand has fallen off the cliff.”
Prawit has long held influence from behind the scenes among key pillars of Thai politics and society: the military, the palace and the business dynasties that control the economy.
His promotion, experts say, is a sign of the enduring hold the establishment has over a country battling inflation, soaring household debt and increasing inequality.
“It really doesn’t matter whether Prayuth stays or goes, he is merely a mechanism of the existing power. If he goes, his replacement will rule in favor of this power,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar at Chulalongkorn University, told VOA.
“We’re going backwards. Everything that we’ve tried to dismantle as a society, like the patronage system, has all come back.”
Opposition lawmaker Rangsiman Rome also warned it may not be over just yet for Prayuth, a leader who professed he carried out the coup to save the country but became a “sucker for power.”
“Should the court rule in favor of him, I think Thailand would officially be gearing toward the Dark Ages,” he told VOA News.
There was scattered applause for Prayuth from within the ranks of an army that has carried out 13 successful coups since the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and refused to accept election losses to pro-democracy parties.
“People should praise Prayuth for following a democratic path by respecting the court’s order,” Army chief Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae told reporters. “It shows this is a true democratic system. He’s been a gentleman about it, a true soldier if you will. This is true democracy.”