Thai Prime Minister Can Stay in Power, Constitutional Court Rules

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that the country’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, can stay in power, a decision expected to revive the pro-democracy protests that rocked Bangkok in 2020.

Mr. Prayuth, who seized power in a 2014 coup, was temporarily suspended from his duties as prime minister last month while the court considered a petition to remove him from office.

The Constitution stipulates an eight-year term for prime ministers in Thailand. The opposition argued that Mr. Prayuth’s term began in 2014, when he became the premier after he and other generals ousted the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Mr. Prayuth’s legal team has said that the clock started when a new Constitution was adopted in 2017. Others have said that it began after the 2019 elections.

On Friday, the nine-member court ruled, 6-3, in favor of the 2017 start date. It said that the eight-year term “has to be counted when this Constitution was put into effect.” Mr. Prayuth can stay on as prime minister until 2025, if he is not voted out in next year’s general election.

In downtown Bangkok, dozens of protesters jeered and cursed the Constitutional Court as they gathered to watch the decision on an outdoor projector. They made obscene gestures and shouted: “The court let him stay on, but we won’t let him stay on.”

“This is beyond bad,” said Patchapong Kaedam, 39, an activist who has been protesting Mr. Prayuth’s rule since 2020. “This has eroded my trust in the judicial system. I feel that this country is hopeless.”

Others held the three-finger salute, a symbol of defiance drawn from the “Hunger Games” movies and that previously was banned by the junta. Several of them had signs that said: “Get Out Prayuth.” Another poster read: “Haven’t you been devouring this nation enough? It’s been 8 years.”

“Today we have come a long way and are in the right direction,” Mr. Prayuth said on his Facebook page. “We have to help each other to get it done.”

The decision still leaves Mr. Prayuth in a precarious position. Analysts say it is unlikely that his military-backed party, the Palang Pracharath Party, would keep him on as a candidate for the next general election because he would not be allowed to serve the full eight years of the term.

The 68-year-old retired general is deeply unpopular among a wide swath of Thai society, especially liberals, intellectuals and young people. During his eight years in power, he has survived four no-confidence votes from the opposition, which has accused Mr. Prayuth of economic mismanagement and of failing to secure enough vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic. The Constitutional Court also ruled in favor of Mr. Prayuth in several earlier cases that challenged his right to remain in power.

An opinion poll in August showed that nearly two-thirds of Thais want him to leave office on Aug. 23, exactly eight years after he was appointed prime minister by a junta-backed legislature.

Protesters watched Thailand’s Constitutional Court deliver its verdict on an outdoor screen in Bangkok on Friday.Credit…Chalinee Thirasupa/Reuters

Thailand has had 13 successful coups in its modern history and several more attempted ones. Many Thais are not strongly opposed to living under army rule because previous military administrations handed power back to civilian governments relatively quickly. But Mr. Prayuth has resisted calls to hold elections. The Constitutional Court disbanded The Future Forward Party, a progressive party that was Thailand’s most dynamic political force in years, and barred its leaders from politics for 10 years. Those moves prompted thousands of young people to take to the streets in 2020 to demand his resignation.

“Because he stayed in power for so long and because he seized power unconstitutionally, that has alerted Thai people to look at the coup d’état in a negative way, more than ever,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, the head of department of government at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science.

Mr. Prayuth, who has repeatedly vowed to remain loyal to the Thai monarchy, retains support from the country’s royalists and political elite. His supporters see the recent push for democratic reform as a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.

In 2020, protesters called for checks on the palace’s power, a rare challenge in a country where lèse-majesté laws can land critics of the crown in jail for up to 15 years. Many of them contrasted the economic hardship of millions of Thais with the wealth of the Thai king, one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world. The authorities charged many of the protest leaders with sedition.

Mr. Prayuth was the deputy head of the army when troops violently cracked down on protesters in the heart of Bangkok in 2010, leaving dozens of people dead and hundreds injured, including many bystanders. He has said he would “probably just execute” journalists who did “not report the truth” and once asked reporters to quiz a life-size cardboard cutout of himself.

Analysts say Mr. Prayuth has largely failed to come up with any policies to help Thailand’s economy, the second-largest in Southeast Asia. The country’s economy grew 1.6 percent last year, one of the slowest growth rates in the region. This year, Thai officials estimate the economy will grow from 2.7 percent to 3.2 percent, again putting Thailand on course for the slowest expansion in Southeast Asia.

“They don’t have any complex economic policy and people can see that now,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University.

In Bangkok, protesters were putting out calls for a rally on Saturday. They said they would wear black for a week. The reason: to mourn the death of democracy.

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Jakarta.

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