BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand's Constitutional Court suspended Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from official duties on Wednesday, after deciding to hear a petition seeking review of his legally mandated eight-year term limit.
The petition by the main opposition party argued that Prayuth's time spent as head of a military junta, after he staged a coup when he was army chief in 2014, should count towards his constitutionally stipulated eight-year term.
Though Prayuth could be restored to his position when the court makes its ruling, the surprise suspension threw Thai politics into confusion.
"The court has considered the petition and related documents and sees that the facts from the petition are cause for questioning as demanded," it said.
Prayuth has 15 days to respond, the court told media in a statement, adding that a panel of judges ruled five to four in favour of his suspension, starting from Wednesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan is expected to take over as interim leader, another deputy prime minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam, told reporters on Monday.
It was not clear when the court would deliver a final ruling on the petition.
Prayuth ruled as head of a military council after he overthrow an elected government in 2014.
He became a civilian prime minister in 2019 following an election held under a 2017 military-drafted constitution in which an eight-year limit for a prime minister was set.
Thailand's next general election is due by May next year.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said Prayuth respected the court's decision and had ceased active duty, adding that the suspension would have no impact on the government's work.
"Prime Minister Prayuth also urged the people to respect the decision of the court and avoid criticising the decision that could further create division," he said.
In its review request, the main opposition party has argued that Prayuth should leave office this month because his time as junta chief should count towards his term.
Nearly two-thirds of Thais also want Prayuth out of office by this month, a recent poll showed.
But some supporters argue his term started in 2017, when the new constitution took effect, or after the 2019 election, meaning that he should be allowed to stay in power until 2025 or 2027, if elected.
The controversy is the latest in a country that suffered intermittent political turmoil for nearly two decades, including two coups and violent protests, stemming broadly from opposition to military involvement in politics and demands for greater representation as political awareness grows.
Pro-democracy activists have campaigned against Prayuth and his government, arguing that the 2019 election was not legitimate.
But student-led demonstrations petered out over the past couple of years, with the imposition of COVID-19 bans on gatherings. But activists have gathered again this week in anticipation of the court decision.
Nearly 100 pro-democracy protesters at central Bangkok's Democracy Monument welcomed Prayuth's suspension but said it was not enough.
"We're not just content with suspending Prayuth from duty, we want parliament dissolved and a snap election," said a woman activist who identified herself as just Manee.
"We're not happy. Prayuth stole power from a woman and became prime minister in a coup," she said, referring to the prime minister ousted in 2014, Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime minister and telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra.
Both Yingluck and Thaksin live abroad in self-exile.
Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward opposition party, called for a speedy ruling on Prayuth's fate.
"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."
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Panu Wongch-um; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor, Robert Birsel; Editing by Kay Johnson and Clarence Fernandez)