Thai Court Rejects Petition to Disqualify Premier Amid Protests
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A Thai court dismissed a petition seeking to disqualify Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha for allegedly breaking ethical rules, allowing him to stay in power as pro-democracy protesters campaign for his resignation.
Prayuth didn’t violate the constitution by staying in a military-funded house in Bangkok following his retirement as army chief, the Constitutional Court said in its verdict Wednesday. The court ruled on a petition brought by opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat filed through the lower house of parliament.
The prime minister was eligible to occupy military housing as a former chief, and the army was within its right to extend the facility and bear the cost of water and electricity, the court said. The government should provide housing to a sitting premier, the court said, adding that an existing official residence wasn’t suitable for use.
The benchmark Thai stock index, which has dropped 10% this year, erased losses after the verdict but ended 0.2% lower, while the baht held gains of 0.1%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The former army chief took power in a 2014 coup and stayed as prime minister after elections last year, with the help of rules written in a constitution drafted while his junta held power. He’s facing growing calls to resign from anti-government protesters, who have also demanded a rewriting of the constitution and monarchy reform.
The court verdict could add fuel to anti-government protests that have swept Thailand since July. Thousands of pro-democracy activists rallied in northern Bangkok on Wednesday to push for Prayuth’s ouster, holding placards questioning the court ruling.
“This is not the end of our fight,” Free Youth, one of the protest groups, said in a statement after the ruling. “When you can’t do anything wrong, this country is heading to a breaking point.”
Prayuth has been prime minister for more than six years, longer than any Thai premier in the past three decades. To the protesters who’ve held regular rallies for more than four months, he represents the royalist establishment’s grip on power.
“The ruling signals that Prayuth still has the support of the establishment, which still hasn’t agreed to the protesters’ demand,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an expert in Thai politics and an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok. “This will become one of the issues that the protesters will focus on going forward.”
Prayuth, who said on Monday that he was “only worried about how to keep the nation, religion and the monarchy safe,” didn’t make any comments after the court’s ruling on Wednesday.
While Phitsanulok Mansion in the capital is the official residence of the prime minister, it’s not common for premiers to use it. Prayuth chose to continue living in a house in the army base in Bangkok even after becoming prime minister, citing security reasons.
“A lot of people expected this outcome, but it could further anger some people and create more distrust in the legal system,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand. He expects Prayuth’s government to complete its full term.
In 2019, the court rejected a separate petition from lawmakers that claimed Prayuth was ineligible for office because he was a state official in the junta when he won the parliamentary vote for premier last year. The ruling said that the junta wasn’t a state agency and therefore Prayuth didn’t count as a state official.
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