- By Jonathan Head
- South East Asia correspondent
Pita Limjaroenrat is not your typical Thai politician.
In a country where the average age of cabinet ministers is 65, where unquestioning deference to elders is still a cherished tradition, his youth – he looks far younger than his 42 years – and unabashed confidence make him stand out.
That he is, after a shock election result which put his reformist Move Forward party ahead of all the others, poised to become the youngest prime minister in 78 years, has stunned the conservative political establishment which has dominated Thailand for much of the modern era.
Difficult negotiations are now under way to form a coalition government with Pheu Thai, the second largest party, which has won every election held in Thailand since 2001, and had been expected to win the latest, held on 14 May.
Both Pheu Thai and Move Forward consider themselves to be progressive, opposed to military interference in politics like the 2014 coup, which deposed a Pheu Thai administration.
But the young activists of Move Forward outmanoeuvred the older party, and beat many of its candidates, with an imaginative, social media-based campaign offering voters a complete break with the past, and a different kind of political leadership.
“I’m different,” Pita tells me. “We are not getting into a coalition to pursue a quick fix, or to get me the prime ministership. I’m in government for the people. The world has changed.
“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’.
“I don’t have to be perfect all the time. I can just be like a regular human being here in Thailand, riding motorcycles, eating on the streets like any other people.”
Pita Limjaroenrat was born into a wealthy Thai family.
He cites being sent to school as a teenager in New Zealand, the time he lived in the United States doing postgraduate study, and his experience working in the family rice-bran business, and then as an executive with the ride-hailing company Grab, as formative influences.
He admires down-to-earth leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Uruguay’s José “Pepe” Mujica.
Move Forward has the most ambitious reform agenda of any party in Thailand’s electoral history.
Among the 300 policies in its manifesto are equal marriage for LGBTQ Thais, ending military conscription, tackling business monopolies, and overhauling the education system to make it fit for a 21st Century economy.
The party plans to scrap the military-drafted constitution, and bring the army’s many business interests under the Ministry of Finance.
“It is time to end the cycle of military coups, and time to end the corruption in politics which opens the door to coups,” Pita says.
But the party’s most controversial proposal is to amend the lèse majesté law, which imposes long jail sentences on those convicted of insulting the royal family, and to begin a conversation about the relationship between the monarchy and the Thai people.
Many of the 250 senators, who were appointed by the previous military government, and who are required to join the parliamentary vote for the next prime minister, say they will block Move Forward from taking office over this issue.
“The sentiment of the era has changed,” says Pita.
“I think we now have the maturity and tolerance to speak about the monarchy. Even conservatives understand what the role of a constitutional monarchy should be in the 21st Century.
“We won the votes of 14 million people. And they understood – it was clear, it was transparent – that this was one of the agendas we wanted to push.”
The Move Forward leader believes that his coalition, which currently holds 312 out of the 500 seats in the lower house of parliament, will get the necessary backing of 64 senators to give them the super-majority they need.
Sources inside the senate, though, say this will be difficult to achieve so long as Move Forward remains committed to amending the lèse majesté law; but that at least some of the senators, who only have a year left of their unelected terms, do feel uneasy about opposing a coalition which won a clear majority in the election.
Pita Limjaroenrat is promising a new foreign policy as well.
Under the military-backed governments of the past decade Thailand is widely viewed as having punched below its weight in international affairs, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha taking little interest in foreign policy.
“Definitely we need to engage the international community more,” Pita says.
“We have to rebalance. We have to speak out more, and we have to side with the rules-based world order. No words, no weight in foreign policy.
“And a lot of our problems, whether its economic, it’s air pollution, it’s the price of fertiliser, come from the rest of the world.”
His government, he says, would work more closely with Thailand’s Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbours to seek a solution to the civil war in Myanmar, and he would try to channel more humanitarian aid across the Thai-Myanmar border.
The challenges still confronting this young prime minister-in-waiting are daunting.
There is the sceptical senate, and the need to hammer out a deal with Pheu Thai, which won only ten seats fewer than Move Forward and has more experienced negotiators in its team.
Pheu Thai has been demanding top ministries, and the powerful parliamentary speaker position, which Pita views as a priority to get his many new bills tabled.
His party is made up mainly of first-time MPs, some too young to pass the 35 years age threshold to be a minister, some still facing serious criminal charges from their past political activism.
Ideologically more flexible, and taking a hands-off approach to the monarchy, Pheu Thai has the option of joining an alternative coalition which includes parties in the outgoing administration.
Move Forward has ruled out such a compromise, having won many of its votes through its promise not to do deals with the generals.
Pita Limjaroenrat believes neither party can abandon what he is calling a coalition of dreams and hope, because of the damage it would do to their reputations.
He wears the weight of these responsibilities lightly, still making time to spend with his family, and breezily optimistic that things will work out.
“I don’t want to be like those other Thai politicians still fighting for positions well into their 70s and 80s,” he tells me.
“I want to keep doing this for maybe another ten years, and then it will be time for something else.”