Thai Caretaker PM Announces Retirement from Politics

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha listens to questions from the media during a press conference after chairing a cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on June 20, 2023. Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Bangkok, Thailand -- Thailand's outgoing prime minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha announced on Tuesday his retirement from politics, but will remain as the country's leader until the formation of a new government.

A long-running fixture in Thai politics, the army chief seized power in a 2014 coup before cementing his control in highly controversial 2019 elections.

His decision comes just days before a key vote in Thailand's parliament that could see the next prime minister elected, following a May election when voters emphatically rejected army-backed parties.

"From now on, I quit politics by resigning as a member of the UTN party," he said in a statement posted on the United Thai Nation (UTN) party's official Facebook page.

The party -- which Prayut joined only weeks before May's elections -- failed to gain traction with voters, coming in a distant fifth place behind the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) and Pheu Thai.

The opposition groups were galvanised by a wave of support across the country, as voters rejected a near-decade of army-backed rule and opted for reform.

MFP's determination to amend Thailand's tough laws that protect the all-powerful royal family also garnered popularity during the election campaign.

Leader Pita Limjareonrat has said his party would not shy from the challenge, telling reporters on election night that "no matter what, we will push for royal lese majeste law reform".

In his statement, Prayut urged members of UTN to protect "the institutions of nation, religion, and monarchy" -- a reference to the previously untouchable three pillars of Thai society.

Prayut will remain as caretaker prime minister until the formation of a new government.

- Political strategy? -

Prayut's popularity had been on a downward spiral in the last year, as he battled divisions within his sprawling coalition -- barely surviving in July 2022 his fourth no-confidence vote.

His government has faced intense criticism over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy, with Thailand recording its worst economic performance since the 1990s under his tenure.

And large, youth-led pro-democracy rallies that sprang up in Bangkok in 2020 called for his resignation, as well as more wide-reaching reforms.

But Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst at Naresuan University, was adamant Thailand has not seen the last of him.

"I think he is doing some political strategy, because why now?" she told AFP, referencing the upcoming prime ministerial vote.

"It does not make sense."

"I would say this is a clear move that Prayut has himself played," Waitoolkiat added, suggesting that his political career was not over.

Born in 1954 into a military family in northeastern Thailand, Prayut rose from military college to become commander of the prestigious Queen's Guards in 1980.

In 2010, forces under Prayut's command opened fire and killed scores of "Red Shirt" protesters -- mostly rural supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Four years later, Prayut launched the latest of the dozen coups to have rocked Thai democracy over the last 90 years, ousting Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government.

Prayut introduced martial law and headed a junta regime for five years before clinging to power in a disputed 2019 election with the help of a handpicked senate.

Under Prayut's government, lese majeste prosecutions rocketed.

More than 200 people faced royal defamation charges in the wake of the 2020 street protests, which included calls for changes to the previously untouchable monarchy.

© Agence France-Presse

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