BANGKOK, THAILAND — Few tipped him seriously as a likely prime minister, but Thai opposition leader Pita Limjaroenrat looks set to play a major role after voters rejected almost a decade of army-backed rule.
With most of the votes from Sunday’s polls counted Pita’s radical Move Forward Party was leading the popular vote ahead of the more established opposition Pheu Thai party.
This represents an extraordinary achievement for a party whose forerunner was dissolved and its leader banned from politics.
The photogenic 42-year-old Pita has been a dynamic presence on the campaign trail, capitalising on his youth and energy to reach voters disillusioned and yearning for change after eight years of the dour military-backed government.
“We will together rewrite Thai political history. Vote Move Forward, Thailand changes,” he told ecstatic supporters at MFP’s last rally in Bangkok on Friday.
The election is the first since major youth-led pro-democracy protests erupted across Bangkok in 2020 with demands to curb the power and spending of Thailand’s king — breaching a long-held taboo on questioning the monarchy.
MFP is the only party promising to reform the lese majeste laws, known as 112 in Thailand after their section in the penal code.
A hugely controversial and sensitive subject, it has long been held as an untouchable in Thai politics. Even opposition rivals Pheu Thai said they would leave the issue to parliament.
But Pita has not shied from it, telling reporters late Sunday that “no matter what, we will push for royal lese majeste law reform”.
The father of one is considered a political heart-throb, inspiring pop-star levels of hysteria from his supporters.
Educated in New Zealand and the United States, he studied at Harvard on an international scholarship, before going on to become an entrepreneur.
However, following his father’s death when he was 25, Pita returned home to run his family’s heavily-in-debt business Agrifood, turning its fortunes around. He later became the executive director of the transport and delivery app Grab Thailand.
In 2012 he married Thai TV actress Chutima Teepanat, and they have a seven-year-old daughter. The marriage broke down in 2019.
His daughter has featured prominently in the campaign with Pita bringing her on stage after speeches, much to the crowds’ delight.
Online, he has utilised a public “personal” account — followed by almost one million users — to share images of him and his daughter wearing matching t-shirts and eating ice cream together.
But despite the success at the ballot box, there is no indication his path to prime minister will be straightforward.
He must now cobble a coalition together to surpass government-appointed senators who elect Thailand’s PM from among eligible candidates.