Less than twenty minutes after he was let off the hook by the Constitutional Court, which ruled on Friday that he can still be PM for two and a half more years because the eight-year limit stipulated under the charter should only be counted when the junta-sponsored constitution came into effect in April 2017, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha made it clear he is planning to stay on to do more ‘great things’ for Thailand.
Prayut posted on his official Facebook page promising to lead the Thai people toward a “new golden-era” of progressive and development by pushing for major transports and infrastructural projects.
Prayut did not go into the details whether it means hi-speed train connecting Thailand to China in the north or more expressways and subways, but it is clear the former coup leader who first became PM by force back in 2014 is not going to step down or return the mandate to the people.
Whether Prayut will manage to hold on to power after and return as PM after the general election next year or not will largely depend on whether he could still convince the powers that be that he is still the sole viable face to represent the conservative elites who have supported him over the past eight years or not.
The five weeks Prayut was temporarily suspended from PM duties until the Friday’s ruling, his first deputy, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, became PM and managed to run the country as caretaker PM rather smoothly despite occasionally telling reporters “I don’t know” when asked about a number of issues related to the state.
Prawit is the leader of the ruling Phalang Pracharath Party and the party will now have to ask themselves if they want to still support Prayut as their PM candidate in the next general election which the Election Commission recently said can take place in May 2023.
Another key figure, Bhumjai Thai Party leader and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul is already packaging himself as the next PM candidate, betting on his controversial achievement in decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
The conservative camp will basically have to wait and see if Prayut’s real shelf life as PM has in fact expired or not or whether they should wheel out someone else as his replacement, particularly considering the fact that even if Prayut managed to return as PM after next year’s election, he will still have to step down after two years, or in April 2025 because of the term limit.
The calculation as to whether Prayut is still worth investing on or more of a liability depends on how unpopular he will be in the coming weeks and months. Angry anti-Prayut protests at two separate spots occurred on Friday soon after the ruling was heard and another one on Saturday in Bangkok.
Will there be enough angry protesters to convince the conservatives to offer an alternative face to Prayut? It may be too early to tell as of press time.
One thing for certain is the two main opposition parties are cashing in on the growing anti-Prayut sentiment, hoping to turn it into more votes and MPs. The main opposition Pheu Thai Party in particular is hoping for a landslide victory and is now presenting itself as the only true viable way to oust Prayut.
A few weeks before the ruling, Pheu Thai Party vice chairman of strategic committee Pichai Naripthaphan told me he prefers the Constitutional Court to allow Prayut to stay on as PM because this will rally more angry voters to support his party and it may lead the party to gaining a landslide victory next year.
Meanwhile, the second-biggest opposition party, Move Forward, is also in full election campaign mode. After the ruling, the party asked the public to support a proposal to push for a referendum to draft a new constitution, to be decided on the same day as the general election day.
It is clear now that the two major parties want to compete in elections and are not aiming to oust Prayut outright through supporting street protests. And that is where the theatre of the next real political battle shall be.