Explainer: Replacing PM no walk in the park

Prime Minister Prayut Chana-o-cha ends a cabinet meeting at Government House on Tuesday. (Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

Seeking someone to succeed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is no walk in the park. It involves navigating a complex selection process, from which terms like interim prime minister and “prime minister in reserve” have sprung. The Bangkok Post has written an explainer to shed light on the issue.

How did ‘prime minister in reserve’ come about?

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who leads the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, first mentioned “prime minister in reserve” on April 26, in response to questions surrounding the possibility of the Constitutional Court ruling Gen Prayut’s tenure as prime minister should end in August. To date, questions remain over when his tenure is supposed to end.

Gen Wit Devahastin na Ayudhya, leader of the Setthakij Thai Party, said a censure motion against the government — which may be filed at the end of this month — could unseat Gen Prayut. His secretary-general Capt Thamanat Prompow, who had a bitter falling-out with the prime minister, then said, “Everyone has a knife behind their backs,” — referring to rumours that a number of government MPs might vote against Gen Prayut in the motion.

Why the talk of prime minister in reserve now?

Rumours of government MPs being bankrolled to censure Gen Prayut and lingering questions about Gen Prayut’s tenure as PM led to talks about a prime minister in reserve — especially since both issues are expected to come to a head soon.

A prime minister can only serve for a maximum of eight years. However, the end of Gen Prayut’s term is currently disputed because no one can agree on when he actually took office. Some believe his term began in 2014 following the coup which toppled the Pheu Thai-administration. Others say his term began in 2017 when the current constitution was promulgated, but there are also groups which believe his term began in 2019, when his premiership was royally endorsed following the general election.

Pheu Thai is reportedly looking to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on Gen Prayut’s term as prime minister. If the ruling decides Gen Prayut’s premiership began in 2014, then his tenure will end on Aug 24.

How does it differ from interim prime minister?

A prime minister in reserve will be preceded by an interim prime minister. If Gen Prayut must vacate his seat in August, an interim premier would take his place immediately. In this case, the first deputy prime minister, Gen Prawit, would assume the position, said Wissanu Krea-ngam, second deputy prime minister and the government’s legal expert.

The next step would be for parliament president Chuan Leekpai to get parliament to elect a new prime minister within three to seven days of Gen Prayut vacating office.

The candidates must come from a “reserve” list made up of candidates in the 2019 general election — former Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, and Pheu Thai’s Chaikasem Nitisiri, Chadchart Sittipunt and Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan. Mr Chadchart and Khunying Sudarat remain on the list even though they have quit the Pheu Thai.

Mr Wissanu noted Gen Prawit cannot be a prime minister in reserve because he is not on the list.

What if no reserve candidate receives enough support?

In that case, Section 272 of the constitution will be invoked to abolish the reserve list and create a new list of nominees. These could be current MPs, provided they are eligible by to be premier. But picking such candidates would be hard as the support of least 500 out of 750 parliamentarians is needed to endorse a candidate from the new list.

Which path is more feasible?

The new list is a harder path to take since mustering the support of three-quarters of parliament is not easy, said Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.

With the reserve list, the candidates with the highest chances of being prime minister are either Mr Abhisit or Mr Anutin, who are acceptable to coalition parties which hold the parliamentary majority.