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Bangkok (AFP) – A legal showdown that could oust Thai Prime Minister Prayut Cha-O-Cha reaches the country’s constitutional court this week, threatening further political turmoil for the kingdom months before national elections.
The former general clung to power through massive anti-government protests in 2020, a deadly pandemic, a shaky economy and dozens of political near misses – but now the very constitution he oversaw the design of is being used against him.
Opponents of the 68-year-old – who took control in a coup – are campaigning for his removal under rules limiting a prime minister to a maximum of eight years in office, a threshold they say it will reach Wednesday.
Although the outcome is uncertain, many observers believe the court will rule in favor of Prayut.
Prayut’s opponents say his tenure began when he seized power in the May 2014 coup, the latest of more than a dozen military putsches aimed at upending Thai politics since the birth of democracy in 1932.
But his supporters say he has been prime minister since 2017 – when the current military-drafted constitution was implemented – or 2019, when he controversially won a much-delayed national election.
Opposition parties have asked the constitutional court to rule on Prayut’s term end date, and on Wednesday judges are expected to say whether they will consider the case.
If he accepts the case, the court could suspend Prayut from office.
The former general – who held on to power with unanticipated tenacity – seems unfazed by the latest tragedy.
“Let the court decide,” he told opponents before appearing before parliament, waving a “rock on” hand sign to bewildered reporters.
The court has played a key role at key points in the upheavals that have rocked Thai politics over the past 20 years, overturning the results of the 2006 and 2014 general elections.
“I would not be surprised if the verdict of the Constitutional Court was in favor of Prayut,” political analyst Napisa Waitoolkiat of Naresuan University told AFP.
Such a move, anticipated by many, could see him remain prime minister until 2025 or 2027 – if he and his Palang Pracharat party can be re-elected.
The kingdom is experiencing one of the lowest growth rates in the region as the recovery in international tourism fails to pull the economy out of the doldrums.
“Uncle Tu”, as Prayut is known, has never enjoyed much popularity, and Thailand’s years of economic woes have only exacerbated a public sense of stagnation.
Earlier this year, the kingdom’s royalist military elite was spooked when Chadchart Sittipunt, a former minister from the opposition Pheu Thai party, won a landslide victory in Bangkok’s gubernatorial election.
With a general election due in March next year, the Prime Minister’s abysmal popularity – the candidate linked to him garnering just 8% of the vote – is setting off alarm bells for his own MPs.
“If you see the behavior of these politicians, they don’t pay attention to the government now. They are more concerned about the upcoming elections,” said political analyst Waitoolkiat.
A recent survey by the National Institute of Development Administration found that two-thirds of 1,300 people polled wanted Prayut to leave immediately.
Protesters are expected to take to the streets from Tuesday night to demand Prayut step down, and police have already placed shipping containers to protect the streets around government buildings.
But Prayut survived months of street protests in Bangkok in 2020 and survived four no-confidence motions in parliament. Many believe he is determined to stay to host the high-level APEC summit in Bangkok in November.
At a small rally on Sunday, students and anti-government groups vowed to take action against ‘tyrant’ Prayut and, in a statement, urged people to ‘consider the upcoming elections a turning point in our fight’.
“Ball”, a student who gave only his nickname, said he thought Prayut was likely to continue as prime minister, backed by the courts – and Thais could take to the streets again.
“In the last eight years, nothing has improved in this country, and people are almost at breaking point,” he said.
© 2022 AFP