In this file photo taken on July 16, 2019, Thailand s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, right, poses for a photo opportunity with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, left, and other members of the new Thai cabinet at Government House in Bangkok. AFP
It's considered unlikely that the court will rule against Prayuth and permanently force him out since it has generally ruled in the government's favor in a slew of political cases.
But allowing Prayuth to stay on would risk invigorating a protest movement that has long sought to oust him and reopening deep fissures in Thai politics that have sometimes led to violence. While Prayuth initially came to power in a coup, he won the job legally after a general election in 2019.
It was not immediately announced who would become acting prime minister. One reading of the law indicates it would be Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a close political ally of Prayuth and part of the same military clique that that staged the coup.
Their close association means Prawit's appointment as Prayuth's replacement would not mollify critics.
Prayuth's detractors contend he has violated a law that limits prime ministers to eight years in power, a threshold they say he hit Tuesday since he officially became prime minister on Aug. 24, 2014.
But his supporters contend his term should be counted from when the current constitution, which contains the term-limit provision, came into effect in 2017. Another interpretation would start the clock in 2019, following the election.
A group that is among the leaders of the main protest movement seeking to unseat Prayuth again demanded that he step down on Wednesday.
"No Prayuth. No Prawit. No military coup government," the group known as Ratsadon, or The People, said while issuing a new call for protest.
A earlier statement called the last eight years "the darkest and most bitter times. A period under the rule of a tyrant who took power away from the people. A tyrant who inherits power through a mechanism without democratic legitimacy."
The almost surreal case, in which the court is deciding whether a coup-leader has stayed in power too long, highlighted Thailand's unusual political culture. The country has been rocked by a series of coups, but often the soldiers who overthrow elected leaders then try to legitimize their rule and defuse opposition by holding elections and abiding by constitutional restrictions.
By a vote of 5 to 4 on Wednesday, the court agreed to suspend Prayuth from his duties while it considers a petition from opposition lawmakers. The court's announcement said Prayuth must submit his defense within 15 days of receiving a copy of the complaint, but it did not say when it would rule.
The statement did not mention if Prayuth can retain his other post of defense minister.
Polls show Prayuth's popularity is at a low ebb, with voters blaming him for mishandling the economy and botching Thailand's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I am very pleased. Gen. Prayuth has stayed for a long time and had no vision to develop the country at all," Wuttichai Tayati, a 28-year-old who works in marketing, said while protesting outside of the government headquarters on Wednesday. "At least, taking him out for now might make Thailand move forward a bit."
In 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Prayuth and his Cabinet resign, while also calling for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy to be reformed.
Several confrontations between the student-driven protest movement and authorities became violent. A legal crackdown on activists further embittered Prayuth's critics.
Small protests appealing again to Prayuth to step down and the Constitutional Court to force him to if he didn't have been held daily since Sunday.
Even if he does, Prawit's rise to power would not resolve the standoff.
In addition to his close association with the military clique that seized power, Prawit, 77, was tainted by allegations he had illegally amassed a collection of luxury watches he couldn't possibly afford on a government salary, though a court accepted his explanation they were gifts and cleared him of wrongdoing.
Whether Prawit would or could actually take the prime minister's post is not clear. He has publicly acknowledged his health is not good and is better known as a behind-the-scenes political organizer.
Also, according to some legal scholars, a replacement for Prayuth would have to come from the small pool of candidates that the country's political parties nominated for the job after the 2019 general election. That list did not include Prawit, though it appears possible he could be nominated in case of a deadlock.
If he is not forced out of office, Prayuth must call a new election by March next year, though he has the option of calling one before that.
The eight-year term limit was meant to target former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who was ousted by a 2006 military coup but whose political machine remains powerful. The 2014 coup ousted the government of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Court rulings have forced three prime ministers associated with Thaksin from office, including Yingluck.
Thailand's traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, felt that Thaksin's popularity posed a threat to the country's monarchy as well as their own influence. The courts have been stalwart defenders of the established order and ruled consistently against Thaksin and other challengers.