Pita Limjaroenrat’s progressive party may have won the most number of seats in Thailand’s general election, but it is far from certain that the 42-year-old businessman will succeed in becoming the Southeast Asian nation’s next prime minister.
The charismatic leader of the Move Forward Party, which stunned Thailand’s royalist military elite with its May 14 election victory, was put forward on Thursday as the sole candidate for the reformist coalition in the parliamentary vote for prime minister.
But he faces several hurdles.
While Pita’s eight-party alliance controls 312 seats in the newly elected 500-member lower house, he needs at least 376 votes to become prime minister.
That is because a 250-member Senate appointed by the military following the 2014 coup also gets to take part in the vote. Many senators have already indicated they will not vote for Pita because of his party’s bold promises to reduce the powers of the royalist military that has long dominated Thai politics. These include revisions to a law that punishes insults to the monarchy, ending military conscription and monopolies in the liquor industry
Even if Pita manages to scrape through in Thursday’s vote, he also faces disqualification from parliament as the Thai election commission claims he violated electoral laws by owning shares in a media company.
On the eve of the crucial vote, the electoral body lodged the case at the Thai Constitutional Court, sparking protests in the country’s capital, Bangkok, and in cities across the country. If the court rules against Pita, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a 20-year ban from politics.
Who is Pita?
Colleagues and friends have described Pita as “humble”, “adept”, “open to compromise”, and possessing a “mind and spirit intrinsically directed to public service”.
Born in 1980 to a politically-connected and wealthy family in Thailand, Pita, who is known to his friends as Tim, has previously said that his interest in politics began during his secondary school days in New Zealand.
A “rebellious” youth who listened to rock and roll and played the guitar, Pita’s family “shipped” him off to the “middle of nowhere in New Zealand” where the only television available was Australian soap operas or debates in parliament, he told the Thai YouTube programme Aim Hour earlier this year.
He said he would listen to speeches by New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger as he did his homework.
After returning to Thailand, Pita completed an undergraduate degree in finance and banking at Thammasat University in Bangkok, before going on to earn a joint master’s degree from MIT and Harvard in business and public policy.
In his mid 20s, Pita took over the family business, CEO Agrifood, after the death of his father. Although young, his leadership helped the company become one of Asia’s largest producers of rice bran oil, according to his friend Jesus M Acuna.
“Pita’s father represented that stereotypical strong leader figure in the company, and when he passed away, that ship was adrift, and the company would have been lost. So this young guy, remember, he was 25 at that moment. He had to step in. That special challenge where he was able to turn things around and put the ship back on track into a successful business says a lot about his abilities,” said Acuna, a Mexican lawyer who was a classmate of Pita’s at Harvard and a close friend who attended the politician’s wedding in 2012.
He has a “mind and a spirit devoted to public service” and “believes the most important thing you can invest in a country is people – preparing them, giving them the tools to fulfil their personal dreams,” said Acuna.
Pita made his political debut in 2018, when he joined Move Forward’s predecessor party, Future Forward, handling its agricultural policy. He was first elected to parliament in 2019, where he said he gained a new awareness of the “inertia within the system”.
The legislator first drew national attention with a speech in parliament that year about the plight of Thailand’s farmers, who he said were being driven into debt by the high cost of agricultural production.
When the Thai constitutional court dissolved Future Forward, and banned its leader from politics, Pita and the party’s remaining legislators formed the Move Forward Party.
He has since described the nine years since the military coup of 2014 – the army’s second power grab since 2002 – as a “lost decade” for Thailand, and said in an interview with the Thai Public Broadcasting Service that Move Forward was out to “return common sense to Thai politics”.
“We are about getting things done. We are about decentralising the country, de-monopolising the economy and demilitarising the country,” he added.
‘Progress is not a straight line’
Padipat Sunthiphada, a Move Forward legislator who was recently elected the deputy speaker of Thailand’s parliament, said “Pita knows the problems” of Thailand.
“He wants to change Thailand in not just a quick win, but to change the [governance] structure of Thailand, to change the nation. So he has really good understanding and is brave enough to talk in public [about Thailand’s issues],” he said.
What makes Pita a good leader, Padipat said, was also his openness to compromise and his ability to connect with both the younger and older generations.
“He’s really simple and humble. When we work together, we work as a team and as friends who are equal in the party,” said Padipat.
Sirikanya Tansakul, the Move Forward deputy leader, described Pita as a “very adept person”.
“There are a lot of issues that are very topical. And every time that we discuss new issues, he’s very quick to conceptualise things up and come up with a solution or suggestion or recommendations that we can that we can usefully publish as a party statement,” she told Al Jazeera.
Both of his colleagues also described Pita as a devoted father to his seven-year-old daughter, Pipim.
Pita has sole custody of the girl, according to Thai news outlet Khaosod English, following a bitter and acrimonious divorce in which his former wife filed a lawsuit accusing him of abuse. The petition was dismissed, and Pita has denied the claims saying in an interview earlier this year that “there has never been any domestic abuse in my family” and that he believed in the “rights of women, of families, of children and of politicians”.
Sirikanya said Pita puts his time with his daughter first.
“We have to adjust our schedules to that. Sometimes, from time to time, we have to have a meeting at an odd hour, but he may not be able to make it because of his duties as a parent,” she said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in mid-June, Sirikanya said she still believed Pita would be able to win over the members of the Senate.
“With his qualities of humility and openness to compromise, he could win votes from the Senate. We are hopeful we can get past this,” she said.
The party, she said, was focused on mobilising its supporters.
“We have to have people on our side. That’s why you would have seen him making his time to meet with supporters, voters, and the people in upcountry, in the provinces. I think this is the way that we do politics. We know that we come from the people so we have to maintain their supports in order to win in the parliament,” she said.
Pita, for his part, has consistently ruled out revising the party’s campaign pledges to win the Senate’s backing.
“The choice is to try your best and make sure that you make it happen. Whatever is out of your control will sooner or later happen. Because you think you’re on the right side of history. If that’s the case, then you always have the energy to keep pushing,” he told the YouTube programme AIM Hour in February.
“Progress is not a straight line … it doesn’t happen overnight,” he added.