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Thai Court Asked to Rule If Prime Minister Must Step Down

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Monday received a petition from opposition lawmakers seeking a ruling on whether Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has reached the legal limit on how long he can remain in office.

The petition, signed by 171 members of the House of Representatives, asks the nine-member court to rule on an article in the constitution limiting prime ministers to eight years in office.

The court is widely expected to announce on Wednesday whether it will rule on the petition. It is uncertain whether the court, if it accepts the case, would temporarily suspend Prayuth from his duties until it issues a ruling.

At issue is the date that should be used in determining how long he has been in office. Prayuth, then army commander, seized power in May 2014 after toppling an elected government in a military coup. He led a ruling junta and was installed as prime minister on Aug. 24, 2014, under a provisional post-coup constitution.

His critics and several legal experts contend this means he will complete eight years in office on Tuesday.

His supporters say the country's current constitution, which contains the provision limiting prime ministers to eight years, came into effect on April 6, 2017, and that should be used as the starting date. An even more generous interpretation is that the countdown began on June 9, 2019, when Prayuth took office under the new constitution following a 2019 general election.

The move to oust Prayuth has raised political tensions. Polls show the prime minister’s popularity is at a low ebb and his critics have been seeking his exit for more then two years, saying he came to power illegitimately. He has also been accused of mishandling the economy and botching Thailand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prayuth and his coalition government, however, have survived four no-confidence votes since the 2019 election, most recently last month.

Several street protests urging the court to rule against Prayuth have been held in the past few days, and some critics have also suggested he take the initiative in stepping down.

If he is not forced out of office, he must call a new election by March next year, though he has the option of calling one before that.

The eight-year limit was meant to target former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who was ousted by a 2006 military coup but whose political machine remains powerful. The army in 2014 also ousted the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from office shortly before the takeover by a controversial court decision.

Thailand’s traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, felt that Thaksin’s popularity posed a threat to the country’s monarchy as well as their own influence. The courts have been stalwart defenders of the established order and ruled consistently against Thaksin and other challengers.