Term limits strike again

We’ve noted a number of times the way authoritarian or irresponsible leaders either ignore term limits or find creative ways to get around them. But a new twist was added last week in Thailand, when military ruler Prayut Chan-o-cha was suspended by the constitutional court.

It’s a while since we looked at Thailand, although you can read my report on the 2019 election here. Put briefly, the military under general Prayut seized power in a coup in 2014 following a period of civil disturbance, overthrowing the government of the Pheu Thai party. Prayut became prime minister and put through a new constitution in 2017; that led to the dubious 2019 election that confirmed him in power, although even with the system loaded against it Pheu Thai won the largest number of seats.

Unusually, the 2017 constitution imposed a term limit – eight years – for the prime minister (since Thailand is a monarchy there is of course no president). Prayut’s view was that the term began to run from 2019, or 2017 at the earliest. His opponents, logically enough, argued that it began in 2014, and petitioned the court for a ruling to that effect.

The constitutional court has generally been regarded as a creature of the military, so it was a surprise last week when it agreed to hear the case and, by a five-four decision, suspended Prayut from office until the full hearing. His deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, has taken over as acting prime minister in the meantime; Prayut remains as defence minister.

The 2019 election led to a wave of (in my view) unjustified optimism about Thailand’s government. The Economist returned it to the status of a “democracy” in its 2020 index, although it still missed out on an invitation to Joe Biden’s democracy summit last year. But the prospects for Prayut’s government in next year’s election have been looking increasingly bleak.

Opinion polls show the military’s party, Palang Pracharath, languishing at around 10%, less than half of what it had in 2017 and well behind both Pheu Thai and the latter’s prospective coalition partner, Move Forward. This week, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (whose badly misnamed Democrat Party helped to instigate to 2014 disorder) conceded that the opposition was likely to emerge victorious, and that the military’s aim of achieving “stability and security for the political landscape” has come at the price of “increased frustration and disappointment” in the electorate.

In the time-honored fashion of authoritarian governments, the military has responded by trying to fiddle the electoral system, introducing changes last year to reduce the number of proportional seats and increase those from single-member districts. But it’s not at all clear that this will help; although it will disadvantage smaller parties and independents, it should also boost Pheu Thai.

The big problem the opposition has is that the 2017 constitution allows the Senate as well as the lower house to vote on the appointment of a prime minister, and the Senate, whose term runs until 2024, is stacked with military appointees. But even if Prayut or another general is reappointed, an opposition majority in the lower house – especially a large one – could paralyse the government, potentially leading to a fresh cycle of destabilisation.

Despite coups and upheavals, Thai electoral behavior has remained quite consistent, with Pheu Thai and its exiled leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, maintaining strong support among the country’s poor. At some point, they and the establishment need to come to terms.

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