1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Thailand: Will Prayuth ruling spark a new political crisis?

Enno Hinz
October 2, 2022

Although Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will remain in power following a ruling by the Constitutional Court, his government risks being seen as illegitimate.

A anti-government protester holds a sign reading 'prayut get out'
Thai opposition groups have vowed to protest Prime Minister Prayuth remaining in powerImage: Sakchai Lalit/AP/picture alliance

Thailand's current constitution stipulates a term limit of eight years for a prime minister. However, there are different interpretations, depending on the political camp, as to when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's term should be counted as having started.

Opposition parties said the ex-army chief has overstayed his tenure, which they contend started when he seized power in a military coup in 2014.

However, since the current constitution only became effective in April 2017, Prayuth's supporters argued that the term limits cannot be applied retrospectively, and that his term officially began in 2017 when the new constitution was put in place.

On Friday, Thailand's constitutional court agreed with this interpretation, ruling Premier Prayuth's tenure began in 2017, leading the way for him to serve as PM for two more years if he is reelected after the completion of his current term in 2023.

The verdict follows the temporary suspension of Prayuth on August 24, when the court decided to hear a petition from opposition parties. The decision in Prayuth's favor threatens to exacerbate long-running political tensions in Thailand between the miliary-backed government and opposition groups.

"Even though Prayuth is coming back, it will not be easy for him to survive," Virot Ali, a political analyst at Voice TV, a liberal-leaning Thai television channel, told DW.

Prayuth Chan-ocha smiles at a desk
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in a military coupImage: Government Spokesman Office/AP/picture alliance

The United Front for Thammasat and Demonstration, one of the core groups in the pro-democracy movement, had promised to organize prolonged demonstrations if Prayuth was allowed to remain in office.

Constitution put into question

The ruling essentially extending Prayuth's term has raised questions about the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court.

According to Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, law professor at Chulalongkorn University, the verdict does not indicate a constitutional crisis in a strict sense, where all parties no longer follow the constitutional order.

"But it points to the larger problem of an ill-drafted constitution, deliberately misreading the text of constitution, and the constitutional court's lack of public trust," he told DW.

When the current constitution was drafted in 2017, it was done in secrecy without much public discussion, leaving many people unaware of what the prime minister's term limit is and how it should be understood, he added.

Thailand's political divide a generational conflict

As the face of the military coup in 2014, which ousted the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth is deeply unpopular with Thai liberals and progressives.

According to Siripan Nongsuan Sawasdee, political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, Prayuth is also unpopular due to "clear administrative management shortcomings, particularly from an economic standpoint."

During his period in office, Thailand has recorded its worst economic performance in three decades. Failed reforms and the coronavirus pandemic further intensified criticism of his mismanagement and created what analyst Ali described as a "generational conflict" between young and old.

In 2019, young Thais took to the streets in mass protests against the government.

"One of the issues the youth wanted to push forward was political reform, which never happened. Despite the constitutional change, it is very clear that everything is designed for Prayuth to be in power. I think that is why people were feeling he must go," Ali said. 

Prayuth still popular with political establishment

Despite his unpopularity among liberals, Prayuth remains popular with the conservative base.

Punchada Sirivunnabood, political scientist at Thailand's Mahidol University, told DW that Prayuth remains the preferred leader among Thailand's pro-junta political establishment and this could have influenced the decision to extend his premiership.

Thailand's next general election is scheduled for May 2023 and the coalition led by Prayuth's Palang Pracharath Party has no candidate for premiership other than Prayuth.

Moreover, the currently ruling coalition will want to keep opposition parties from forming a new government.

This bodes well for Prayuth's continued role within the Thai political framework.

"He seems to have everything locked and connected. The constitutional court, the anti-corruption committee, the election committee — everything is in his pocket," said analyst Ali. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn