Election winner Pita Limjaroenrat wants to change Thailand forever, if Thais will let him

The MF party's youthful leader could become prime minister, but the challenges he faces to get there are huge

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat greets supporters during the party's final campaign event in Bangkok on May 12, ahead of Thailand's general election on May 14. AFP
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Thailand is not your typical democracy. Its elections are not the ultimate arbiter of power. Over the past century, the South-East Asian nation has experienced as many as 19 coups and 19 constitutions, thanks to constant intervention by its praetorian-style military against elected governments perceived to be threatening its constitutional order. That was certainly the reason behind two of the latest coups, launched against the populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and against his sister Yingluck in 2014.

The upshot was an almost decade-long period of rule by a triumvirate of pro-monarchy ex-generals: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda.

In this year’s elections, the youthful Move Forward (MF) party dared to challenge two pillars of the Thai political system, by vowing to revisit the country’s lese-majeste and military conscription laws. And, to great shock, it won.

The 42-year-old party leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, who closely observed Barack Obama’s historic candidacy in the 2008 US presidential election as a graduate student at Harvard, ably leveraged social media (particularly TikTok) as well as aggressive door-to-door campaigning to win the hearts and minds of the country’s emerging middle class and politically mobilised youth. Defying all pre-election forecasts, the MF won 151 of the 500 seats in Parliament, while the populist Pheu Thai (PT) party, led by the Thaksin family, managed only 141 seats. Meanwhile, the pro-military parties, now divided between supporters of Mr Prayuth and Mr Prawit, heavily underperformed. The incumbent’s United Thai Nation Party, for instance, only won only 36 seats, effectively ending Mr Prayuth’s political career.

Voters study candidates' details prior to casting their ballots at a polling station in in Bangkok on May 14. AP

MF’s victory presents a historic opportunity to end what is popularly referred to in Thailand as “wongchon ubat” (the “evil cycle”) of electoral populism and elitist militarism that has haunted Thai governance for the past two decades. Despite winning the greatest number of seats, however, MF is under growing pressure to compromise on its most radical policy ideas in order to build a majority-based coalition and, crucially, avoid constitutional challenge, if not yet another coup. Should he succeed in becoming the next prime minister, Mr Pita is expected to not only usher in more liberal-progressive governance at home, but also embrace a more self-assured and proactive foreign policy.

It is hard to overstate the significance of MF’s electoral victory. For the past two decades, Thai politics has been essentially defined by a bipolar struggle for power, with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the central figure. MF defied all expectations by not only outmaneuvering the pro-military parties, but also the populist PT party, now led by Mr Thaksin 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn.

In many ways, Thailand, like neighbouring Malaysia, is the latest example of economic growth strengthening popular mobilisation

MF’s success, however, was a reflection of the country’s remarkable growth despite political instability. Over a single generation, Thailand reduced its poverty rate from almost two thirds of the population to under 10 per cent, while GDP per capita has more than doubled from $3,000 to around $8,000 in just two decades. Thailand not only boasts a highly globalised economy and a world-class tourism industry, but also, thanks to its massive auto-industry, it has earned the moniker of the “Detroit of Asia”.

With growing prosperity came an increasingly large, youthful and politically active middle class, which has demanded for greater political liberalisation and good governance. MF’s electoral success can’t be understood without appreciating the appeal of its progressive platform to a relatively large and energised middle-class voter base. In many ways, Thailand, like neighbouring Malaysia, is the latest example of the enduring relevance of the classic “modernisation theory”, which postulates that in many countries economic growth can eventually strengthen popular mobilisation.

The path ahead, however, is tricky. To form the next government, MF, likely at the behest of its main coalition partner, PT, has already signalled pragmatism. For instance, it has recalibrated its most radical positions, especially regarding the monarchy and lese-majeste laws. This has increased chances that enough members of the traditionalist Senate would back an MF-led government, which still needs dozens of votes for a parliamentary majority.

Once in power, MF will likely need to focus more on economic and cultural issues such as raising minimum wages and the question of same-sex unions, as well as on press freedom rather than highly divisive issues such as modernising the country’s monarchy, lest it invite direct collision with traditionalist forces. On foreign policy, Thailand will likely embrace a more proactive approach, thanks to the country’s status as one of the founding members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, its military alliance with the US and robust trade and investment ties with China.

Throughout the campaign, Mr Pita underscored his commitment to a more “independent” and “multi-aligned” foreign policy similar to neighbouring Singapore and other emerging powers like India, Indonesia and Turkey. He has promised to ensure Thailand will “not be part of the Chinese umbrella or the American umbrella”, but instead actively pursue new trade and investment deals with multiple powers.

At the same time, Thailand could take a stronger stance on major conflicts, including a more critical one towards the junta in Myanmar, which enjoyed cosy ties with the outgoing government in Bangkok. Mr Pita’s top foreign policy aide has rather boldly said the MF leader “will be a foreign policy leader, which, in Thailand, is rare”. It’s far from clear at this stage whether MF will form the next government, but should it successfully bring together a sustainable coalition, its youthful leader will have to carefully navigate with old challenges in building a new Thailand.

Published: May 25, 2023, 7:00 AM