Pita Limjaroenrat | Winds of change 

The Move Forward Party leader’s anti-establishment campaign that promised to weaken the military-royalist rule and initiate reforms helped him connect with voters

Updated - June 11, 2023 06:00 pm IST

Published - June 11, 2023 01:32 am IST

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat takes part in the annual LGBTQ Pride parade in Bangkok, Thailand on June 4, 2023.

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat takes part in the annual LGBTQ Pride parade in Bangkok, Thailand on June 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Pita Limjaroenrat is in no hurry. The Thai politician looks settled at election rallies, speaking to a mass of young voters as equals, if not friends. He smiles through interviews, the calm in his voice drawing attention to his reformist ideas. At Bangkok’s Pride Parade last week, he posed for selfies in a crisp rainbow shirt, sleeves coolly rolled up to the elbow.

This is not the rush of someone who, from a cliff, sees change and wants to leap forward. He carries a rare collectedness. Mr. Pita understands a yearning among Thai voters who have led pro-democracy protests to fight an inertia — one that keeps oppressive regimes in power.

“[T]his election is about people looking for a new face, and a new future,” he said in an interview weeks before Thailand’s elections on May 14. Mr. Pita led his Move Forward Party (MFP) to a stunning victory. People came out in record numbers; 14 out of 39 million people voted for the MFP’s anti-establishment ideas. He wants to do the unthinkable: de-monopolise business monopolies, weaken the military-royalist rule and usher in progressive reforms. Controversially, his party proposes to amend the lèse majesté law, which shields the monarchy from public criticism. “Today is a new day, and hopefully it is full of bright sunshine and hope,” he said, immediately after winning.

While the MFP has emerged as the single largest party and, with the backing of other anti-military parties, has a majority (314) in the 500-member House of Representatives, that’s not enough to form the government. In Thailand’s bicameral Parliament, which includes the military-appointed 250-member Senate, a leader needs the support of 376 legislators to become Prime Minister.

“The wind of change has been blowing. What we need to carefully and maturely ask ourselves is, is Thai society building a wall or a wind turbine?”Pita Limjareonrat, at an election rally

To overcome inertia, one must apply force. The 42-year-old politician, nicknamed ‘Tim’, has the makings to be a force wound up by the beliefs and resistance of people. The Thai hashtag of his name has 3 billion views on TikTok. He is “considered a political heart-throb, inspiring pop-star levels of hysteria from his supporters”, Channel News Asia wrote.

Mr. Pita’s celebrity status precedes politics. He grew up in a wealthy, political family (his father, Pongsak Limjaroenrat, an adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture; his uncle the former Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra). He attended the Bangkok Christian School before he was “shipped to the middle of nowhere in New Zealand” for high school. He lived on a farm with a local family, reportedly delivering milk and newspapers in his free time. “...there were three channels back then. Either you watch Australian soap operas, or you watch the debates in parliament,” he said in an interview with a YouTube programme. This moment is marked as his political awakening when he would listen to speeches by Jim Bolger, the nation’s Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.Mr. Pita obtained a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School and an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management. At Harvard, he worked with American classmates who were campaigning for former President Barack Obama, another window into the laborious world of electoral politics. He applied some lessons to his own campaign, he said in a New York Times interview. Duncan McCargo, a political science professor, explained that to middle- and upper-middle-class Thais, “he’s like the ideal son-in-law that you’d like to have — very educated, accomplished, good-looking, poised”. At 25, following his father’s death, he returned home to his family’s 200-million baht in-debt rice bran business, Agrifood. He increased the effectiveness of the company’s value chain and developed the value of rice bran, such that people believed in its potential. He built a career in business and consulting, later becoming a senior executive at the ride-hailing company Grab.

Also read | A vote for change: On the result of the Thai parliamentary election 

Mr. Pita became a member of Parliament in 2018, four years after the Thai military, led by then-leader Gen. Prayuth, seized power. The Constitution was rewritten in 2017, which strengthened the military’s control over power, allowing for a scrupulous nine-year rule.

Mr. Pita’s popularity may be an organic product of its times. The momentum of the youth-led uprising during 2020-21 that demanded an end to the authoritarian rule and corruption in Thailand — which came to be associated with the iconic three-finger salute — was dwindling. Perhaps, in Mr. Pita’s story, people see an echo of what Thailand’s future could look like.

He is not radical, as he is atypical. This is a politician vying to lead a country where deference for elders and traditions is cherished. The average age of Cabinet Ministers is 65. In his ranks are aspiring leaders, many first-time MPs facing criminal charges for political participation. The MFP’s campaign relied heavily on user-generated TikTok content, with views running into millions, reaching to a young audience outside of the traditional ways of campaigning. He doesn’t want to govern forever, “maybe another 10 years, and then it will be time for something else”, he said in a BBC interview. He appears almost anachronistic to the current moment.

“You don’t have to be a strong man, with toxic masculinity, to make sure ‘people have to listen to me, and I have to be the one in the spotlight all the time’,” he added.

After the breakdown of his seven-year marriage with actor Chutima Teepanat, he holds sole custody of his daughter Pipim. (Ms. Teepanat accused the politician of physical and emotional abuse following their divorce; the lawsuit was later dismissed). Pipim has followed her father to the campaign trails; the two are seen wearing matching shirts and eating ice cream. The politician at times gives way to an eager father, who hopes “Pipim has the capability to choose for herself, to do anything she wants”, and that she is able to appreciate “good food, enjoy good music and travel a lot”. The ballad of Pita and Pipim, in theory, challenges conventional wisdom about parenthood and growing up — a rare spectacle to a Thailand that is trying to mature too.

If the never-ending monarchy appears inviolable, demanding God-like reverence, Mr. Pita presents an antithesis. He expresses a desire to be “regular” — to ride on motorcycles, eat street food, anything but “perfect”. After reinventing Agrifood, Mr. Pita said about wanting to “prioritise” the people; no longer wanting them to work “for” him, but “with” him. There is a rare acknowledgement of human fallibility (“We have to fail and fail better”), which may speak to a society looking to hold someone to account for an economic and social breakdown.

“You don’t have to be a strong man, with toxic masculinity, to make sure ‘people have to listen to me, and I have to be the one in the spotlight all the time.’”Pita Limjareonrat, during a BBC interview

Mr. Pita is under investigation for allegedly possessing shares in a dormant television company, iTV, which, according the 2017 amendment, would disqualify him from being the PM. In 2019, the MFP’s predecessor Future Forward Party did well in the elections, but was later disbanded due to alleged fund irregularities.

The wind of change has been blowing for a while. Mr. Pita posed a question to a charged crowd at an election rally: “What we need to carefully and maturely ask ourselves is, is Thai society building a wall or a wind turbine?” Mr. Pita doesn’t construct the illusion of instantly forwarding to the future. All he promises is the ability to move forward.

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