Prayuth in Wonderland: Where the rules are made up and the truth doesn’t matter

By Craig Keating, Former Senior Analyst, Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA)

The bottom line in a Thai court ruling to suspend Prayuth Chan-o-cha pending a review of the legitimacy of his leadership is that his authority and prospects for the 2023 general election have been harmed, writes Craig Keating.

Thailand is seized by the Constitutional Court’s decision on Wednesday to suspend its unelected prime minister, retired general Prayuth Chan-o-cha, pending its ruling on how the Constitution’s eight-year prime ministerial term limit applies to him. But, regardless, of its eventual decision, Prayuth will be wounded, with consequences for next year’s general election.

As thoughtful Thailand watchers know, its transition to democracy has remained incomplete ever since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932. In Thailand, the unbiased application of existing laws often plays little part in big decisions. And Prayuth’s fate is unlikely to be an exception.

Prayuth’s march to power was built by flouting prevailing laws and good governance. He seized power from an elected government in a May 2014 coup, tearing up the existing constitution in the process. Then, as head of the junta (officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order), he directly or indirectly picked the people who would write the current constitution that let him maintain power as an unelected prime minister.

In preparation for the country’s nominal return to democracy, Prayuth followed the time-worn path for Thai military strongmen first established by the country’s fascist-loving dictator of the 1930s and 40s, Plaek Phibulsongkram. His allies established a new party, Pracharath, in 2018 to be the political base for Prayuth’s continued hold on power, and drew in politicians from other parties, reportedly offering money and government positions. A junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly chose the members of the Election Commission that several weeks after a close 2019 general election determined who got the “party list” seats the junta party coalition needed for a narrow 254–246 majority.

Soldiers during 2014 coup, Chiang Mai
Thai soldiers gather during PM Chan-o-cha's successful coup, Chiang Mai, Thailand - May 26, 2022. Image credit: Wikimedia.

The Constitutional Court that will rule on Prayuth’s fate appears well disposed towards him. Even before Prayuth rose to power, the Court had a track record of decisions against Prayuth’s political opponents. And after Prayuth seized power, the Court’s judges were appointed with the approval of the legislature that his junta had engineered – in some cases by overruling age limitations imposed by the current constitution that his own trustees had crafted.

An objective reading of the law is not a reliable guide to how the Constitutional Court will decide a matter. So, it is no surprise that the Court has ruled in Prayuth’s favour on previous contentious issues. In September 2019, it threw out a complaint when Prayuth and his cabinet failed to complete the oath of office as required by the Constitution that he himself had overseen. In February 2020, the Court defanged his most aggressive political opponent when it ruled the progressive Future Forward Party be dissolved. Its curious judgement contended that a loan from the party’s founder should be regarded as a donation – the latter would have violated election laws. And in December 2020, the Court cleared Prayuth of wrongdoing for staying in army housing while PM, decreeing an army regulation took precedence over what is supposedly the highest law of the land.

It is impossible to say how the Court will rule on Prayuth’s tenure. As noted, Constitutional provisions are not sacrosanct. Were the Court to look for a legal fig-leaf to allow Prayuth to stay on as prime minister, it could turn to an earlier ruling that Prayuth was not a state official when he was the junta chief. However, it is unlikely to claim that Prayuth’s July 2019 incomplete oath-swearing means that the intervening time should not be counted towards the eight-year limit. Although opposition lawmakers challenged its legality at the time, King Vajiralongkorn’s views were not in doubt, and the matter was dropped.

Even were the Court to rule that Prayuth has to step down as prime minister, that does not mean a change of government is imminent – the incumbents could limp on to see out their term, which expires on 24 March 2023 (assuming this Constitutional provision is followed). The Court could take months to announce a decision. And, even were the Court to rule against him, Prayuth will more than likely stay on in cabinet in his other role as Defence Minister. One commentator speculated that Prayuth could return as provisional prime minister were the Court to rule against him – though this is unlikely to be tenable, if the Court rules the Constitution’s eight-year provision must be enforced.

The bottom line, however, is that Prayuth’s authority and prospects for the 2023 general election will be harmed whatever the Court rules. If it lets him stay on as prime minister, Prayuth’s political opponents will likely portray the ruling as another example of its claims of “double standards” at play in favour of the conservative side of politics. And were he to lose, then his influence over others in his unwieldy ruling coalition will fall, likely leading to jostling for power ahead of the upcoming national polls and raised political tensions. All in all, it is a rather ironic fate for a man who had almost certainly intended the Constitution’s eight-year rule to spell the political demise of his chief opponent, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Craig Keating is a former senior analyst with Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA). Prior to joining ONA, he held numerous positions with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

Banner image: Thai PM Prayuth Cha-o-cha attends cabinet meeting, Bangkok, Thailand - February 22, 2022. Credit: Shutterstock.