The Harvard Alumnus Behind Reformist Party That Won Big in Thailand Election

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(Bloomberg) -- Pita Limjaroenrat rode a wave of support for his pro-democracy party’s call to reduce the influence of military in politics and changes to a controversial law shielding the monarchy from public criticism. On Monday he emerged as the favorite to become the nation’s next prime minister.

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Here’s everything you need to know about the Move Forward Party and its leader.

Who is Pita?

Pita s the charismatic leader of the Move Forward Party, which won about 150 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. The Harvard-educated former lawmaker has been casting himself as an agent of change after what he calls a “lost decade” under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

Before joining politics, Pita — also known as Tim Pita — helped turn around his family’s debt-ridden rice bran oil company. He also worked as executive director of ride-hailing firm Grab Holdings Ltd.’s Thai unit.

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He was married to Chutima Teepanart, an actress and model. They have one daughter.

What Pita’s journey ahead looks like?

Pita, who staked his claim to become Thailand’s 30th prime minister on Monday, needs to stitch together a coalition of like-minded parties. His party wasted no time in reaching out to potential allies, the biggest of which is Pheu Thai, a party linked to the influential Shinawatra clan.

Move Forward is counting on the support of more than 300 lawmakers, Pita said on Monday, adding the party was looking to form a government as soon as possible.

What does the Move Forward Party stand for?

Move Forward drew strong crowds of first-time voters and young Thais with its reformist agenda, becoming the only mainstream party to urge changes to the law criminalizing royal insults. The lese majeste law, one of the harshest in the world, mandates up to 15 years in prison for every instance of defaming, insulting or threatening the king and members of the royal family.

Move Forward party is also looking to lessen the influence of the military in politics. Pita has proposed ending conscription and cutting the size of the defense budget. The party also backs passing a marriage equality bill, ending business monopolies and stimulating business activity beyond Bangkok.

The party’s surprise sweep of Bangkok, the most populous province, shows how the party’s appeal has broadened beyond the youth who formed the backbone of its support base in initial years.

Move Forward was assembled from the ashes of the Future Forward party, led by staunch junta critic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, before it was disbanded in 2020.

“Move Forward is the new game in Thailand,” says political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak, senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies. “Thailand’s new battlefront and the battle cry of its younger generations is the reform and adjustment of the military and monarchy.”

What’s the controversy over Pita’s media investments?

Pita’s reported stake in defunct Thai broadcaster ITV drew scrutiny because parliament members are barred from running for office if they own media shares. A candidate from rival Palang Pracharath party, the biggest military-allied party, is petitioning the election commission to investigate Pita for owning 42,000 ITV shares while he was a lower-house member in 2019. Pita tweeted his defense on May 9, saying he merely inherited the shares and had notified the anti-corruption agency about them.

It’s a familiar dilemma for the opposition. In 2020 a transgender lawmaker from the Move Forward Party, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, was disqualified from parliament after being found guilty by the constitutional court of owning media shares. Thanathorn, figurehead of the Future Forward party, was also disqualified in a similar case.

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