Thailand’s Constitutional Court is set to decide on Wednesday whether Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha should be disqualified for breaking ethical rules, a move that would see him ousted even after he’s repeatedly rejected calls by pro-democracy groups to resign.
The court will deliver its verdict on a petition filed through the lower house of parliament by opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat, who alleged that Prayuth’s use of military housing after his retirement from the army amounted to a special benefit forbidden by the constitution.
The former army chief took power in a 2014 coup and stayed as prime minister after elections last year, with the help of rules written in a constitution drafted while his junta held power. He’s facing growing calls for to resign from anti-government protesters, who have also demanded a rewriting of the constitution and monarchy reform.
Prayut said Monday that he’s “not worried” about the court’s ruling and was “only worried about how to keep the nation, religion and the monarchy safe.” He said he would respect the verdict, which could see him immediately disqualified and banned from standing for prime minister again if he’s found guilty.
In that case, someone with similar views is likely to replace him. The 250-member Senate appointed by the military would also get a vote for prime minister along with the 500-member House of Representatives, all but ensuring a candidate favored by the royalist establishment takes power.
Possible replacements include Anutin Charnvirakul, a deputy prime minister, and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, both of whom were nominated for the job after the last election. But if they don’t muster enough support, the constitution allows an “outsider” candidate to contest. Analysts have said that could include former army chiefs like Prawit Wongsuwan and Apirat Kongsompong, whom King Maha Vajiralongkorn appointed to the Bureau of the Royal Household in September.
Arnon Nampa, one of the key protest leaders, said last month that Prayut’s disqualification could be the first sign of a compromise from the establishment. The protest organizers also plan gatherings on Wednesday to push for Prayut’s disqualification.
“If they rule against Prayut, it would further complicate Thailand’s political situation and power structure,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an expert in Thai politics and an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok. “But it’s unlikely that the court would disqualify Prayut.”
In 2019, the court rejected a separate petition from lawmakers that claimed Prayut was ineligible for office because he was a state official in the junta when he won the parliamentary vote for premier last year. The ruling said that the junta wasn’t a state agency and therefore Prayut didn’t count as a state official.
Prayut has been prime minister for more than six years, longer than any Thai premier in the past three decades. To the protesters who’ve been holding regular rallies for more than four months, he represents the royalist establishment’s grip on power.
Demonstrators are calling for Prayut’s resignation as well as a rewriting of charter rules to prevent establishment-backed candidate like him from being premier. They’re also pushing for the monarchy to no longer endorse military coups and to agree to rein in some of its power.
“The court will decide in Prayut’s favor if Thailand’s establishment feels the need to maintain status quo cohesion against the current protests,” said Paul Chambers of Naresuan University’s Center of Asean Community Studies, who writes frequently about Thailand’s military. “It will rule against Prayut if the establishment feels the need to give in to regime opponents’ least substantive demand — Prayut’s ouster — and thus demonstrate a token gesture of goodwill for appearance’s sake.”
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