Thai PM Avoids Suspension As Constitutional Court Accepts Ethics Complaint

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Thai PM Avoids Suspension As Constitutional Court Accepts Ethics Complaint

Military-appointed senators are seeking Srettha Thavisin’s removal from office after he appointed a minister with a past conviction for bribery.

Thai PM Avoids Suspension As Constitutional Court Accepts Ethics Complaint

Pichit Chuenban, an advisor to Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, takes part in a meeting of a committee planning celebrations for the Visakha Puja Buddhist festival, in Bangkok, Thailand, May 15, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Dr.Pichit Chuenban

Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has narrowly avoided suspension, with the Constitutional Court ruling yesterday that he can remain in office while it deliberates over a petition seeking his removal for ethics violations.

In a ruling yesterday, six of the court’s nine judges voted to accept the petition and allow the defendant to send any documents in his defense within 15 days, the court said in a statement quoted by Nikkei Asia. The decision to allow Srettha to remain in his post was a break from precedent that will allow the Thai leader to continue serving until a verdict is handed down.

“I did everything sincerely and am ready to answer any query,” Srettha told reporters in Japan after the decision was handed down, Reuters reported. “This government prioritizes the people’s well-being, while investigations are normal.”

The petition in question, filed by 40 military-appointed senators, is seeking to remove Srettha as prime minister. The petition claims that Pichit Chuenban, who was appointed as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office during last month’s cabinet reshuffle, fell short of moral and ethical standards for ministers set out in the constitution.

The claims refer to Pichit’s time as a lawyer and fixer for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto leader of the ruling Pheu Thai party, during which he was convicted of attempting to bribe the Supreme Court in 2008 by handing them a lunchbox containing 2 million baht in cash (around $56,260 at today’s exchange rate). In June 2008, Pichit was sentenced to six months in prison for attempted bribery, and was banned from practicing law for five years. The petition argues that since Srettha appointed Pichit, he should also resign from office.

Pichit insists that he has already paid his price for his role in the “lunchbox cash” scandal and that the petition is a politically motivated attempt to unseat his boss. He nonetheless stepped down on Tuesday, in an attempt – seemingly fruitless – to spare his boss further judicial scrutiny. Pichit was first considered for a cabinet post before Srettha took office in early September, but was reportedly passed over due to his past conviction.

The Constitutional Court has not given a timeframe for its decision in the case, but if it chooses to dismiss Srettha, it could once again deadlock Thai politics and lead to a repeat of the protracted horse-trading that followed the May 2023 general election. Pheu Thai would have to put forward a new prime ministerial candidate, which would be voted on by a parliament in which it is not the biggest party. It would also likely mean more interruptions to the continuity of government, following the resignation of three ministers after last month’s cabinet reshuffle.

The case against Srettha provides another textbook example of how Thailand’s legal institutions are manipulated to political ends. It also suggests that the political war between the conservative political establishment and the Shinawatras continues to simmer, despite being plastered over during the formation of Srettha’s coalition government, which includes both Pheu Thai and the military-linked parties that opposed it staunchly for years. The pact, which also permitted Thaksin to return to Thailand after 15 years in self-exile, came after the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won an unexpected victory at the election. (The MFP also faces a Constitutional Court case seeking its dissolution, a decision which could be handed down next month.)

As Saksith Saiyasombut of Channel News Asia noted on X (formerly Twitter), the petition suggests “some friction behind the scenes between Thaksin’s Pheu Thai and his royalist-conservative enemies that have made an uneasy coalition pact a year ago, with both sides trying to keep each other in check.” Even in a political system known for its sudden lurches and realignments, some political enmities are clearly too entrenched to set aside.