Thailand has removed Prime Minister Prayut Chan Ocha from office. What happens next?

The unusual leadership reshuffle follows a ruling by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday that ordered Prayut to stand by while he considers whether he violated an eight-year term recently spelled out in the constitution.

Prayut took over as prime minister after a military coup in 2014 before winning a controversial 2019 general election.

In the meantime, he ordered the kingdom’s constitution to be rewritten, banning the prime minister from office for more than eight years. But now the question is whether Prayut has broken his own limit.

Earlier this week, the court accepted a petition signed by 172 opposition MPs claiming that Prayut’s rule began in 2014, when he came to power in a coup. The court will also likely consider whether his term officially began in 2017, when the constitution was rewritten, or even in 2019, after the election.

Five of the nine justices of the Constitutional Court on Wednesday agreed that Prayut should be removed from office while the case is being considered by the court, but did not give a time frame for the decision. The court gave Prayut 15 days to file a counter-statement on why he should keep his job once he formally received the court document.

Prayut’s office said in a statement that he respects the court’s decision.

The order “will not affect the administration of the country, the work of civil servants or the current policy of the government,” the statement said.

Who is in charge now?

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan will act as prime minister while the court considers the final verdict, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaysri told reporters on Wednesday. Prawit himself is a former commander-in-chief of the army and a longtime supporter of the Thai monarchy.

New elections are due next May in accordance with the constitution, but the incumbent prime minister still has the power to call an early election, dissolving the elected House of Representatives.

Prayut has survived four no-confidence votes in recent months and appears determined to hang on to power until the election, said Titinan Pongsudirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

But critics say it’s time for him to leave.

“There have been some mistakes in the management of the economy, politics are still polarized because in the last eight years since he was prime minister — or since he was appointed prime minister — Thailand has not done well,” — said the Titanan.

While the youth protests seem to have subsided recently, he said it was because some of the leaders of the movement had been held accountable and dissatisfaction with Prayut’s government persisted.

Why is Prayut unpopular?

Prayut’s reign as military coup leader-turned-prime minister was marred by growing authoritarianism and growing inequality.

The former warlord came to power in a bloodless coup in 2014 that toppled Yingluck Shinawatra’s controversial government after six months of civil unrest and violent street protests.
But soon after coming to power, Prayut banned all political campaigns, including political gatherings of more than five people. During his leadership, hundreds of activists have been arrested and charged under draconian laws such as sedition or lèse majesté – which prohibits criticism of the royal family.
In 2020, young people across the country defied the military-backed government and took to the streets calling for Prayut’s resignation. The mass protests were sparked by broken promises to restore democracy and what activists are calling the crackdown on civil rights and freedoms.
The military government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, nepotism and a lack of transparency and accountability have also fueled calls for Prayut to step down.
The monarchy of Thailand has long been considered godlike.  But the protesters say it's time for a change

Dissatisfaction with the military government and the monarchy of the kingdom continued into 2021.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016 and was crowned in May 2019, is believed to be spending most of his time abroad and largely absent from Thailand’s public life as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Since he became king, billions of dollars worth of assets belonging to the Thai crown have been transferred to Vajiralongkorn, confirming his control of the royal finances and greatly increasing his personal wealth, angering the public, who are required to honor the monarchy.

Helen Regan of CNN contributed to the story.

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