BANGKOK: Thailand's constitutional court on Wednesday (Aug 24) suspended Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha from official duty after it decided to hear a petition to review his legally mandated eight-year term limit.
The court announced the move in a written statement sent to media. It was unclear when it would deliver a final ruling on the petition brought by the main opposition party.
“The court has considered the petition and accompanying documents. It viewed that facts included in the petition present a reasonable doubt that the petition has grounds," read the statement.
"Therefore, it reached a majority vote (5:4) for the respondent to suspend the prime ministerial duties from Aug 24, 2022 until the court delivers a verdict."
Prayut is required to provide the court with clarification within 15 days after receiving a copy of the request, the court added.
The decision to hear the case brought about by the opposition was unanimous.
Thailand's 2017 constitution bars the prime minister from serving more than eight years in total, and opposition parties say Prayut, who took power in a 2014 coup, has reached the limit.
Supporters of the 68-year-old leader say he has been the prime minister from 2017 - when the current army-drafted constitution was implemented - or in 2019, when he controversially won much-delayed national polls.
If the court follows this logic, Prayut could technically continue to serve until 2025 or 2027 - if he wins a general election which is due by March.
Several hundred anti-government protesters rallied at Bangkok's Democracy Monument on Tuesday ahead of the court ruling and further demonstrations are planned.
On Wednesday, police placed shipping containers on some streets near government buildings in anticipation of fresh protests.
Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward opposition party, called for a speedy ruling on Prayuth's fate.
"We want relevant agencies to act quickly ... the law on this matter is not complicated," he told reporters at parliament.
"If the Constitutional Court can decide quickly, the vacuum in the administration that we're concerned about will be short."
Prayut's prime ministerial duties will be taken on by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, said Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam. Prawit, 77, is a former army chief.
"The national Cabinet remains the same because Prayut has not been removed but suspended from duties," Wissanu said.
It is not the first time the constitutional court has played a role in Thai politics - it cancelled the results of general elections in 2006 and 2014.
Prayut has clung on to office through major anti-government protests in 2020, a bruising pandemic, a faltering economy and scores of political near-misses - but now the very constitution whose design he oversaw is being used against him.
The former army chief came to power in a military coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government.
He headed the military regime for five years and continued as PM after the 2019 national elections.
The stern, blunt-speaking Prayut has found himself increasingly out of favour with voters. A recent opinion poll found two-thirds of respondents wanted him to vacate office immediately.
Under Prayut's watch, the kingdom registered its worst economic performance in 30 years and his government has also faced criticism over its handling of the pandemic.
Youth-led pro-democracy rallies 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.