BANGKOK, THAILAND — Fresh-faced Pita Limjaroenrat looked set to be Thailand’s next prime minister, but the pro-democracy challenger’s rise to power has been threatened by last-minute legal challenges and entrenched conservative opposition.
The Harvard graduate has shaken up the country’s political landscape with his promises of reform after nearly a decade of junta rule, winning the popular vote in a May election that catapulted his Move Forward Party (MFP) into being the largest in parliament.
Since election night he has projected an image of confidence, telling voters: “I am Pita Limjaroenrat, the next prime minister of Thailand.”
But he must overcome numerous obstacles, including last-minute hurdles from the kingdom’s Election Commission (EC), a separate legal case over his determination to reform the country’s strict royal defamation laws, and the junta-appointed Senate.
Just a day before the vote, the EC said it had recommended the Constitutional Court suspend Pita as an MP following an investigation centred on his ownership of shares in a now-defunct media company.
MPs are prohibited from owning such shares under the Thai Constitution.
While he denies all wrongdoing, the case will serve to provide more fuel for senators who may have been poised to vote against him.
His eight-party coalition, which includes opposition runners-up, Pheu Thai, has 312 seats but is short of the 376-seat majority needed across both houses of parliament to claim the premiership.
The 42-year-old first appeared on Thailand’s political scene as one of a number of fresh faces in the newly formed progressive Future Forward Party in 2018.
The party, having garnered a huge swell of support in the 2019 elections, was battered by legal challenges and dissolved, with its leaders banned from politics.
It was reborn as the Move Forward Party led by Pita, who capitalised on his charismatic dynamism and youthful energy to reach disillusioned voters ready for change.
Among his pitches was a call for a change to the strict lese-majeste laws that protect Thailand’s royal family, by carrying a prison term of up to 15 years for criticism of the monarchy.
“No matter what, we will push for lese-majeste law reform in the parliament,” Pita said on election night, promising not to sell out young voters who backed the party for its courage in tackling the issue.
But his position spooked many in the kingdom’s military-appointed Senate, who he must convince to back him to succeed as Thailand’s next premier.
And ahead of the vote, the Constitutional Court accepted a case accusing him and his party of attempting to overthrow the monarchy through their campaigning and gave them two weeks to present their defence.
‘Do not step back’
In a Thai political landscape populated with ageing power brokers, Pita — who was named one of CLEO Thailand’s “50 Most Eligible Bachelors” in 2008 — is something of an anomaly.
After completing high school in New Zealand, Pita landed an international scholarship to study for a Master of Public Policy at Harvard.
His father died when he was 25 and Pita returned to Thailand to run his family’s heavily indebted business Agrifood, turning its fortunes around.
Later, he became executive director of the transport and delivery app Grab Thailand, before entering politics.
Thailand’s anti-corruption commission revealed last week Pita has assets worth $2.4 million — including a watch collection valued at $162,000.
In 2012, he married Thai TV actress Chutima Teepanat, and they have a seven-year-old daughter. The marriage broke down in 2019.
His Instagram shows a hands-on dad bouncing on trampolines with his daughter, goofing around and sometimes wearing matching T-shirts.
And Pita’s fun side sent social media into overdrive this week when he invited US pop star Taylor Swift to add Bangkok to an Asian concert tour.
“Hey Taylor! Big fan of yours. Btw, Thailand is back on track to be fully democratic after you had to cancel last time due to the coup,” he tweeted, referencing the 2014 military take-over by General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Rallying supporters in Bangkok ahead of Thursday’s parliamentary vote, Pita promised he would not stop fighting for Thai democracy.
“If you do not step back, I won’t.”