Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha was suspended from his job by a Thai court Wednesday, after eight years in office, which has sunk the kingdom deep into authoritarianism and brought widening inequality. The former army chief had seized control in a 2014 coup.
The constitutional court acted on a petition filed by the opposition that called for Prayuth to be suspended. This week, the former general reached the eight-year maximum term limit written into a new constitution that he helped drive through in 2017.
Reports say Prayuth has 15 days to respond to the suspension.
It is not clear when the nine-member court will hear the case and decide on whether Prayuth has overstayed his term. He cannot appeal the decision.
The suspension appears to have nullified a political settlement involving the 68-year-old Prayuth, who had vowed to contest general elections set for early next year. Instead, his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, also a former general and a serious power player in the country’s backroom politics, will step in as a caretaker.
Prawit “will be acting prime minister and the Cabinet remains the same,” Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters after the court’s announcement.
“General Prayuth still has his Cabinet duty as defense minister,” he added.
The suspension of Prayuth, an army chief who has been battered by years of angry and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests, will have immediate effect.
Many Thai social media users voiced jubilation at the development involving Prayuth, whom many blame for overseeing a loss of democracy, free expression and a shrinking economy in favor of the establishment’s supporters in the palace and big business. Experts, however, were quick to warn of fresh perils ahead.
“The injunction is only temporary,” said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“So, nothing is certain at this point. It could take a month before we know the final decision,” he said.
Thailand is yet to heal bitter divides between a ruling establishment shaped around the monarchy, military and business elite and a pro-democracy movement fueled by the rural poor and working class city dwellers.
Prayuth has repeatedly said he is a reluctant prime minister, called to office by duty to help cure the political wound at the heart of Thailand, which has seen endless rounds of political violence and coups.
He has, however, refused to bow to demands to leave, despite at times, massive pro-democracy demonstrations against his authoritarian rule — as well as increasing challenges from some erstwhile (former) parliamentary allies.
During his eight years in power, Thailand has also struggled to restore growth, which once saw the kingdom upheld as a Southeast Asian model of development.
The coronavirus pandemic and now the global inflation crisis have cut incomes in Thailand and left the public afraid of what may be coming next.
Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, a key youth-facing opposition group, warned of a “political vacuum in times when Thai people need a strong leader the most.”
He said the appointment of Prawit, a 77-year-old career ally of Prayuth, as acting prime minister, does not solve the economic and political stalemate in the country.
“We need a leader who is agile, modern and responsive,” he told reporters.
“The court’s decision today to merely appoint an acting PM only shows that we keep going in ‘Prayuth’ circles instead of addressing the problem of Thailand.”