In this photo, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha inspecting the police guard with Police General Chakthip Chaijinda (L) at a ceremony at the police headquarters in Bangkok on 2 August 2019. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA, AFP)

Long Reads

How Much Longer Can Thailand’s Prime Minister Rule Before Reaching the Eight-year Limit?

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A dispute has emerged over when Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s premiership will reach the constitutional limit.

INTRODUCTION

A huge political storm is brewing in Thailand. It centres on a seemingly simple but highly controversial question: When will Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s premiership reach the eight-year constitutional limit? The question is directly tied to another intriguing question: When did his premiership actually start?

Section 158, Paragraph 4, of the 2017 Constitution stipulates: “The Prime Minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total, whether or not consecutively …” The drafters of the constitution recorded their rationale for setting the eight-year limit, and it was to serve as a precaution against lengthy monopolisation of power, which could be the source of political crisis.

Opposition politicians now contend that General Prayut’s premiership started on 25 August 2014, when the previous monarch, King Bhumibol, appointed him prime minister following a unanimous decision of the National Assembly on 21 August 2014 to select him for the premiership. Therefore, they say, General Prayut’s premiership must end by 24 August 2022. Beyond that date, his rule becomes unconstitutional. The opposition intends to take its case to the Constitutional Court if General Prayut ignores the constitutional limit.

However, constitutional lawyers generally agree that Section 158 of the 2017 Constitution has no (adverse) retroactive effect. They believe that it is applicable only to the period after the constitution entered into force, i.e. on 6 April 2017. Therefore, General Prayut’s premiership will reach the eight-year limit only on 5 April 2025.

On the other hand, supporters of General Prayut argue that he has much longer than that to serve as prime minister, because his premiership under the current constitution actually began only on 9 June 2019 — after the March 2019 general election. Assuming that he completes his first four-year term in March 2023, General Prayut can thus constitutionally serve another four-year term until mid-2027.

In a recent public opinion survey, 40.73 per cent of respondents thought that General Prayut’s premiership would reach its constitutional limit in August 2022. At the same time, 38.3 per cent suggested that he seek clarification on the matter from the Constitutional Court, and 15.03 per cent believed that General Prayut need not do anything for now.

General Prayut seems to agree that he has until mid-2027 to remain in office. Nevertheless, he has assigned Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wissanu Krea-ngarm, the government’s chief jurist, to examine all pertinent issues concerning Section 158 of the 2017 Constitution.

In the meantime, General Prayut is asking the Thai people to give him five more years “to make many things better”. In recent weeks, the prime minister has been conducting frequent field trips in the provinces, assuring the hard-pressed populace that the COVID-19 pandemic is being tackled effectively, and that economic recovery is just around the corner. He is in fact acting and speaking very much like a politician canvassing for votes.

General Prayut is asking the Thai people to give him five more years “to make many things better”.

General Prayut seems to have regained his self-confidence, after narrowly surviving potential political assassination in the House of Representatives in early September. Apparently, he has made up his mind: He is determined to complete his four-year term in March 2023. After that, he would welcome renomination from the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) to return to the premiership after the next general election. Hence he is asking the Thai people to give him five more years.

STILL THE ONE TO BEAT

General Prayut’s popularity had been in decline this year; his favourability rating fell from 28.79 per cent in March to 17.54 per cent in September. But he is still the strongest contender for the premiership following Thailand’s next elections – if he really wants to go for it.

By throwing his hat into the ring this early, General Prayut is practically undermining the ongoing search by the chief opposition party, Phuea Thai (PT), for a viable nominee for the premiership. While most other parties will nominate their party leaders to succeed Gen Prayut in the premiership, PT is an exception. Its current leader Sompong Amornvivat, a veteran MP from Chiang Mai, is too low-key, inarticulate and uninspiring to be viable candidate. Despite being the formal Opposition Leader, Sompong has seldom taken the floor in the House to say anything extemporaneously; he generally reads from prepared texts.

PT has intensified its search for potential nominees for premier, in anticipation of a possible dissolution of the House and an election in the first half of 2022. Those being considered included, not so surprisingly, members of the family of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After his downfall in the 2006 coup, Thaksin managed to install both his brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, and then his younger sister, Yingluck, in the premiership in the periods 17 September – 2 December 2008 and 10 August 2011 – 7 May 2014, respectively.

PT is however yet to announce potential nominees for the premiership. In the 2019 general election, it nominated three individuals.

Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit has repeatedly insisted that he does not wish to replace General Prayut as prime minister. (Photo: Phalang Pracharat Party, Facebook)

THE PPP NEEDS GENERAL PRAYUT

Like PT, the PPP also does not intend to nominate its party leader, General Prawit Wongsuwan, for the premiership. Its existing plan is to renominate General Prayut, as it did in the 2019 general election.

Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit, who is 76 years old and not in good health, has repeatedly insisted that he does not wish to replace General Prayut as prime minister. “The party leader can hardly walk, … I don’t feel any disappointment … I am the one who nominates Prayut to continue for another term”, he recently told reporters wishing to know if he had changed his mind.

One impediment to General Prayut’s smooth return to office is the continuing presence of Captain Thammanat Prompao, who holds the influential post of secretary-general of the PPP. The flamboyant former Army officer was the mastermind behind the failed conspiracy to bring government MPs together with opposition MPs to vote against General Prayut in a parliamentary no-confidence motion in early September.

General Prayut counter-attacked forcefully and managed to foil the conspiracy. And he survived the no-confidence vote. Then, without informing General Prawit in advance, General Prayut took revenge by having Captain Thammanat dismissed from the cabinet through a sudden command from the king, issued before Captain Thammanat could tender a formal resignation.

At first, a disappointed Captain Thammanat announced his intention to return to his northern home province of Payao. But General Prawit has asked him to stay on in the PPP.

Moreover, General Prawit has appointed a new party strategist, namely General Wit Thephassadin, a former deputy Army chief who was edged out by General Prayut in 2010 for the force’s top job. General Wit’s arrival in the PPP could be seen as deterrence against attempts to wrestle control of the PPP from General Prawit and to hand it over to General Prayut.

Without a party of his own, General Prayut remains vulnerable in the House. The PPP can easily force him to resign by withholding support for a bill proposed by the government, especially one involving fiscal matters. A prime minister is supposed to accept political responsibility if his government’s draft law is rejected in the House.

Alternatively, a prime minister can choose to dissolve the House and call an early general election when a bill is rejected. This power is General Prayut’s trump card vis-à-vis government MPs. Few of the latter want to face the hardship of an early general election, when they still have nearly 18 months of their four-year term left in which to enjoy their privileged parliamentary status.

THE TRIO’S LOVE-HATE TRIANGLE

At times, General Prayut has been bold enough to do things in his own way – even though this might displease General Prawit, his mentor and beloved “big brother”. Dropping Captain Thammanat from his cabinet was one such daring move. Another was to cancel in early October General Prawit’s reassignment to supervise four key departments for which Captain Thammanat was responsible when he was deputy minister in the Ministry of Agriculture.

At first, General Prawit was given the role of supervising the four departments, which included the Agricultural Land Reform Office — a crucial mechanism for tackling landlessness in rural areas, and thus a potent means for winning the hearts and minds of rural voters. The Democrat Party, whose secretary-general, Chalermchai Sri-on, is the agriculture minister, openly opposed the move, fearing that it would undermine Chalermchai’s his authority as head of the ministry.

Democrat party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanavisit cautioned the prime minister against creating a new problem between the PPP and the Democrat Party for the sake of making up with General Prawit to help settle internal problems in the PPP. A week after this warning, General Prayut changed his mind and cancelled the reassignment. The four departments in question are now back under the supervision of Chalermchai, who reports to the cabinet through Jurin.

The Democrats are happy with this solution, and Captain Thammanat is once again frustrated.

How General Prawit will resolve the conflict between Captain Thammanat and General Prayut remains both a puzzle and a matter of intrigue. Publicly, Captain Thammanat has vowed to serve General Prawit, and to make the PPP the top party in the next general election. But he has not declared support for a second term for General Prayut.

A PARTY OF HIS OWN

If the worse comes to worst, and if General Prayut sees he can no longer rely on the PPP, he has another option: heading a party of his own.

At least two political parties have been set up by supporters of General Prayut, the Ruamthai Sangchart Party and the Thai Economic Party. The latter has often been associated with Chatchai Phromlert, who retired at the end of September after serving four years as the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior. Chatchai was a trusted top aide to Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda.

General Anupong is a close ally of General Prayut; he was often seen alongside the Prime Minister during the political crisis in early September. General Anupong needs to strengthen his control of the Interior Ministry in order to fend off efforts by Captain Thammanat and the PPP to make inroads there. One possibility in this regard is to appoint Chatchai as deputy interior minister in the next cabinet reshuffle.

The Interior Ministry controls all the 76 provincial governors and administers the second largest budget allocation of all Thai ministries — larger than the defence budget and second only to the education budget. Whichever party controls the Interior Ministry enjoys enormous advantage in dispensing political patronage nationwide.

If the appointment of Chatchai happens, it will reveal a clear game plan on the part of General Prayut and General Anupong to compete for power against their “elder brother” General Prawit and his PPP.

New and small parties will face an uphill battle in the next general election, when the election system is expected to revert to the use of two ballots, one for a candidate in each constituency and another for a party. The number of electoral constituencies will be increased from 350 to 400, while the number of party-list House seats will drop from 150 to 100. Constitutional amendments to bring about the changes were adopted in parliament on 10 September and submitted to the king for his endorsement on 4 October.

The changes will benefit large parties, particularly PT and the PPP, which have the resources to field strong candidates in all 400 parliamentary constituencies. To ensure a decisive victory over PT, the PPP wants control of the Interior Ministry.

If and when General Prayut heads a party of his own, one quick way to build it up for the next general election will be to co-opt experienced politicians from other parties. He can count on defectors from the PPP joining his party, especially those in the “Sam Mit” or “Three Friends” faction of Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin, Energy Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit, and Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat. Another group of defectors might be 14 MPs from southern provinces, who have long complained about lack of recognition from the PPP’s leadership. The group is demanding a cabinet post for one of its MPs.

One quick way to reduce political uncertainty and to restore transparency in Thai politics is to clarify once and for all how much longer General Prayut can constitutionally lead a government.

Seemingly to placate the “Sam Mit” faction of his party, General Prawit has appointed Somsak as one of his new advisors. Somsak had earlier been suddenly replaced as chief party strategist by General Prawit’s ally, General Wit. Another new advisor to Prawit is Pirapan Salirathvipak, who has advised Prime Minister Prayut on constitutional affairs at Government House. Pirapan, a former justice minister in the Democrat Party-led coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is an influential “fixer” with good connections in high places. He has clear potential to thrive in the PPP.

When he was asked who he is actually serving, General Prayut or General Prawit, Pirapan avoided the trap and responded that he was “serving the Thai people”.

RESTORING TRANSPARENCY

One quick way to reduce political uncertainty and to restore transparency in Thai politics is to clarify once and for all how much longer General Prayut can constitutionally lead a government.

His chief legal counsel Dr Wissanu is understandably unenthusiastic about tackling the controversy now. In fact, he has appeared annoyed when several opposition leaders kicked up a fuzz over what he considers a hypothetical issue.

Dr Wissanu has pointed out that General Prayut would not yet have exceeded the eight-year limit on service as premier, even if his premiership were to be considered as starting in August 2014. This being the case, Dr Wissanu believes that the Constitutional Court will not accept for further consideration any complaint that General Prayut is violating the constitutional limit simply because he has stated his wish to go for a second four-year term.

Nevertheless, one possible solution — now being looked into — is for the Election Commission to request a ruling by the Constitutional Court on when General Prayut’s premiership will reach the eight-year limit. This is provided for under Section 170, Paragraph 3, of the 2017 Constitution. The thinking behind this idea is that the Election Commission needs to know when the term of a prime minister ends, because it has to plan for a possible snap general election.

Opposition leaders are demanding that General Prayut respect the “democratic spirit” of the eight-year limit on the premiership. They are challenging him to step down before August 2022. This will refute their long-standing accusation concerning General Prayut’s “monopolisation of power” since the time he, as Army chief, toppled the PT-led coalition government on 22 May 2014.

So far, the prime minister’s only response has been to say that he is “playing by the rules” for the common good of the Thai nation.

Whether or not Thai voters are willing to give General Prayut five more years to rule remains to be seen. If they have had enough of him, they can vote for candidates and parties in the opposition. If these latter collectively win at least 376 seats in the House – the minimum simple majority of the combined memberships of the House’s 500 MPs and the Senate’s 250 members — they can vote for someone else to be the next prime minister.

CONCLUSION

With General Prayut still in the race for the premiership, PT has little chance of regaining power in the next general election. Thailand’s main opposition party cannot even find anyone willing to compete against the incumbent prime minister for his job.

However, if General Prayut can be kept out of the race by the constitutional limit restricting prime ministers to eight years in the post, then the field will be thrown wide open. And even the PPP will have to scramble to find another nominee for the premiership.

For now, General Prayut looks confident about retaining the premiership if he is renominated by the PPP. He can still count on the strong support of senators, just as he did in June 2019 when 249 out of the 250 senators voted for him.

However, if he chooses to lead a party of his own, and that party nominates him for the premiership, his political future will be less certain. He and his party will face tough competition from the PPP, which has enormous “fire power” and experienced politicians, in the next general election. The PPP is certainly capable of attracting strong candidates for Thailand’s premiership.

Political uncertainty and confusion will diminish only after a satisfactory resolution of the question concerning when General Prayut’s premiership will reach the eight-year limit. The sooner this is done, the better for Thailand.



This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/139 published on 27 October 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.