Harvard graduate, corporate titan and unlikely pro-democracy champion, 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat has shocked the Thai establishment with a grassroots campaign pushing royal reform that has seen him emerge as a frontrunner to be the kingdom’s next prime minister.
His Move Forward Party (MFP) has captured the majority in an election that saw record turnout — with 14.1 million people throwing their support behind him.
Vowing Monday that he would be “the next prime minister of Thailand,” Pita said in a triumphant victory speech that his party is now ready to form a government.
“Today is a new day, and hopefully it is full of sunshine and hope,” he said in English.
Pita first appeared in Thailand’s political scene as one of the fresh faces of the newly formed progressive Future Foward Party in 2018.
It drew the third-largest share of voters in the following year’s poll — but after facing a barrage of legal challenges that critics say were politically motivated, Future Forward was dissolved and its leaders banned from politics.
Reborn as the Move Forward Party, 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 more than eight years of military-backed government.
“We will together rewrite Thai political history,” 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 kingdom’s draconian 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 — once Thailand’s most popular party — 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.”
In a Thai political scene more commonly populated by ageing wheeler-dealers, the charismatic father of one inspires rockstar levels of enthusiasm from his supporters.
Educated in New Zealand and the United States, Pita 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 executive director of 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 young daughter has featured prominently in the campaign with Pita bringing her on stage after speeches, much to the crowds’ delight.
Online, he has utilized 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 prime minister from among eligible candidates.