BANGKOK – Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Thursday asked for more evidence as it considers whether to terminate suspended prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s term in office.

The court suspended the former army chief, who came to power in a 2014 coup, from office last month.

It is weighing a case brought by opposition parties that argues he had reached the end of his eight-year term limit and must step down.

Under Thailand’s 2017 constitution, no prime minister may serve more than eight years in office, but when Prayut’s term began is the subject of dispute.

The former general’s legal team has argued that his premiership did not start on August 24, 2014 – the day he was appointed prime minister of a military government.

Supporters of the retired general have argued either that his start date should be when the current charter became effective or that it should be from when he became the head of an elected government in 2019.

The Constitutional Court said on Thursday it required more information and reports from the official group that drafted the constitution.

Deputy Prawit Wongsuwan has taken over as caretaker prime minister, while Prayut continues to serve as defence minister.

Prayut led the military coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government, and led the junta government until becoming prime minister after a general election in 2019.

Supporters of the 68-year-old leader argue the clock on his term began when the 2017 constitution came into law, or even after the 2019 general election.

If the court agrees, Prayut could technically continue to serve until 2025 or 2027 – if he wins a general election due by March.

But Prayut is increasingly out of favour with voters and under his watch the kingdom registered its worst economic performance in three decades.

Student-led, pro-democracy protests in Bangkok in 2020 attracted tens of thousands of people at their peak, and a key demand of the movement was for Prayut to resign. 

Analysts have said a favourable ruling for the suspended premier is more likely as choosing political continuity over a strict legal interpretation would help avert a political vacuum that might prove troublesome for the royalist establishment.

“They might not focus too much on the legal factor but a political one. This could lead to a verdict that is more compromising, which is the same start date as the charter,” said Mr Teerasak Siripant, managing director at strategic adviser consultancy BowerGroupAsia’s Bangkok office.

“Prayut’s stepping down would bring too much chaos at this time,” he said. 

The court’s next hearing will be Sept 14. AFP, BLOOMBERG