Bangkok loves intrigue, and rumours are swirling ahead of a Constitutional Court decision tomorrow on the fate of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha -- who may or may not have exceeded his eight-year limit at the helm, depending on when judges decide the counting should start.
If the opposition gets its way, the decision will force a rushed exit for the coup-leader-turned-premier. More likely, given the court's record, it will be a compromise, allowing Gen Prayut to remain in place until the 2023 election. Neither option would mark the end of Gen Prayut's problems, or of Thailand's -- from allegiance-shifting ahead of next year, to the struggle to rev up Southeast Asia's most sluggish recovery.
Even a miracle may come too late for Gen Prayut. On the streets, he is hugely unpopular with Thais as they grapple with a weak currency, high inflation, ballooning household debt and the consequences of China's Covid-zero policies, which have slowed the large-scale return of tourists. In polls, he trails behind Paetongtarn Shinawatra, of the Pheu Thai Party, who is the daughter of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
Worse, after his policy failures, the last few weeks can be read as evidence of weakened support for the former army chief among the conservative establishment. As an opposition win in 2023 begins to look likely, the elite may well want to back a different kind of potential prime minister -- one who's in with a chance.
At the heart of the court case is the opposition parties' contention that the period Gen Prayut spent leading the country as head of a military junta after a coup in 2014 should count towards the total. Given the constitution limits the prime minister to eight years in office, they posit, he's already overstayed. Surprising many, the nine-member court said last month it would suspend him while judges deliberated (He has stayed in the cabinet, but as defence minister).
It's tempting to see the opposition gambit as just another challenge for Gen Prayut. He's survived multiple missteps during Covid-19, large student-led street protests and four no-confidence votes, the latest in July. But it's a body blow, all the more painful because it's been dealt by opponents using a provision the establishment had inserted in the constitution to contain its own adversaries, specifically Thaksin.
The worst outcome for Gen Prayut personally would be for the court to set the clock ticking in 2014. He'd need to step down immediately and be replaced with a military-friendly (and monarchy-friendly) alternative.
That's not a threat to the system -- the ruling here is on one man, and an unloved one at that -- but it would be a scramble. Obvious names like Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, power broker, head of the ruling party and currently standing in for the premier, look like a hard sell. He's a military man, already 77, famously enamoured of luxury watches and not suffering from a surfeit of popularity -- all too similar to Gen Prayut. That leaves some of the younger alternatives, around whom consensus would have to be built, like the well-connected Anutin Charnvirakul, also a deputy prime minister.
Far more likely, given the court's track record of siding with the Prayut government, is a fudge that agrees to start the timer in April 2017, the date at which the military-backed constitution (with its time limits) took effect. That's not as generous as picking 2019 -- when he was elected prime minister -- but would be a far more palatable outcome. He'll struggle to attempt to stay on past 2023, but that would buy him some time.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. The court is conservative, but as Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang of Chulalongkorn University pointed out, these are not Gen Prayut's men, and they will not be doing his bidding. They have been partners with the leadership, but are not beholden to him. The court, widely distrusted, has its own tarnished reputation to attempt to salvage. And Gen Prayut, after all, is no longer the elite's standard bearer. ©2022 Bloomberg
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.