The Constitutional Court of Thailand agrees to hear a case that could imperil the prime minister

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Constitutional Court accepted a petition Thursday from members of the country’s outgoing Senate to begin an ethics probe against the prime minister over his appointment of a Cabinet member.

If eventually found guilty, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin could be ousted from his position.

The court ruled that Srettha’s appointment of Pichit Chuenban as minister of the Prime Minister’s Office was in violation of Section 160 of the constitution, which requires those in ministerial positions to “be of evident integrity" and bars those who fail to comply with ethical standards.

Pichit was jailed for six months in 2008 on contempt of court charges after he tried to bribe a judge presiding over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s land purchase case with 2 million baht ($55,000) in a grocery bag.

Pichit resigned from his post Tuesday in what he described in his resignation letter as an effort to protect the prime minister. The minister of the Prime Minister’s Office is a position similar to the president’s chief of staff in the United States. Pichit had been in the job for 23 days following a Cabinet reshuffle in late April.

The same reshuffle that appointed Pichit also saw Thaksin's allies taking up finance and foreign ministerial positions. “The petition was just a warning,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, suggesting that critics are tired of Thaksin’s behind-the-scenes kingmaker act.

Still, the petition from at least 40 senators is seen as the biggest challenge Srettha’s government has faced since it came to power in August 2023.

The complaint comes even after the current batch of senators officially ended their terms on May 11. The process of selecting a new Senate began this week and is supposed to be concluded in July. Critics question whether the outgoing senators have the mandate to oust the prime minister.

“Saying ‘caretaker senators’ is inaccurate, our duties are pretty much similar, we don't lose any power from being caretakers,” Senator Paitoon Limwattana told the Associated Press. The only thing that is different is that the senators can no longer vote for a prime ministerial candidate, he said.

“People ask when this batch of senators will be gone. We’ll be gone once the selection process is complete and the electoral commission ratifies all 200 of the incoming batch," the senator said. Paitoon, who serves on the Senate's Political Committee as a special advisor, stressed that the senators' duties wouldn't change until every new senator was seated.

Srettha survived an initial suspension vote Thursday, after the court voted 5-4 to not suspend the prime minister. Srettha now has 15 days to justify Pichit's nomination to the court. After that, the court will deliberate on his suspension or impeachment.

The fact that Pichit was allowed by the National Anti-Corruption Commission and other law enforcement agencies to take the position speaks volumes about Thailand's muddy and morally questionable method of nomination and selection, said Mark Cogan, professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan.

During a censure debate in April, critics and opposition members of Parliament accused the government of nominating Cabinet members based on political favors, instead of putting the right person to the right job.

The Constitutional Court has a record of rulings that favor the country's conservative establishment, which is suspicious of political parties with populist leanings. Srettha and the ruling Pheu Thai Party are part of former Prime Minister Thaksin's political machine. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006. His electoral popularity was seen as a threat to the influence of the traditional elite, including the army.

His ouster set up years of struggle between his supporters and his opponents, sometimes fought in the streets, and sometimes in the courts. Thaksin-backed parties continue to perform strongly in elections, however.

In July, the political power of the military-appointed Senate was dramatically displayed. In a joint session with the lower house, the Senate blocked the progressive Move Forward Party’s candidate Pita Limjaroenrat from becoming prime minister, even after his party won the most seats in the election and formed a 312-seat coalition in the 500-member lower house.

Napat Kongsawad, The Associated Press