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Thailand: What next for reformist Pita after failed PM bid?

Tommy Walker in Bangkok
September 20, 2023

Despite winning the general election, reformist politician Pita Limjaroenrat quit as the Move Forward Party leader last week after being blocked by parliament from becoming Thailand's next prime minister.

Pita Limjaroenrat holds out a hand
Pita Limjaroenrat won on a reformist campaign, and maintains popularity in Thailand Image: Athit Perawongmetha/REUTERS

In May, the progressive Move Forward Party won Thailand's general election and Pita Limjaroenrat was prime minister-elect. However, four months later, Pita has been suspended from parliamentary duties by Thailand's constitutional court, and last week, resigned as Move Forward's leader.

After winning on a reformist platform, Pita's Move Forward Party set out to form a government in a coalition alliance with other parties.

But Move Forward's pledged reforms, including amending the lese majeste law, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy, led to Thailand's 250-member military appointed Senate blocking their attempts to form a coalition government.

Why did Pita resign?

Pita was suspended by Thailand's Constitutional Court in July over allegations he violated election law by holding shares in a media company while running for office.

Pita has so far denied the charges, but with a trial date yet to be announced, the reformist decided it was right for him to step down as leader of the Move Forward Party so the party could name his successor to serve as Thailand's opposition in parliament.

Thailand's constitution requires the opposition leader to be a current member of parliament. Despite his suspension, Pita insists he will not disappear from working with the Move Forward Party.

"I assure you all that whatever my status is, I have not disappeared but will continue to work with the progressive party [Move Forward] and its brothers and sisters with all my might and ability to drive the change agenda we desire together," Pita stated in his resignation post on Facebook.

Thai court disqualifies Pita Limjaroenrat from parliament

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst in Bangkok, told DW Pita's decision to resign indicates the Move Forward Party doesn't rely on him being their leader.

"Move Forward identifies with Pita, but this party is very horizontal. It's not hierarchical. It's not a top-down party, nor is it operated or supervised by a certain personality. His resignation shows that the party is much bigger than the individual," he told DW.

"Somebody will come up and that person will be the next enemy of the establishment forces, but it's not about the leader. It's about the party and what it stands for," he added.

What is next for Pita and Thailand's reformist party?

Over 75% of Thailand's population voted in May's elections. The polls were seen as crucial for Thailand because of its recent political history, which has been marred by coups, protest and exiles.

But after the Move Forward Party was blocked from leading government by the Thai Senate, Thailand's government was formed by the Pheu Thai Party in a coalition with military-aligned parties. Move Forward has called the governing coalition a "distortion" of the election outcome.

Local media and Thai political observers have suggested that Chaithawat Tulathon, the Move Forward Party's secretary-general, could succeed Pita as party leader. The party has pledged to serve as opposition in parliament.

However, there are concerns over the future of the Move Forward Party. Thailand's Constitutional Court said it will also hear a case that the party's election policies to reform the anti-monarchy law constituted treason.

Political scientist Thitinan said the treason allegations are hanging over the Move Forward Party, but expects the party will survive.

"It can still be dissolved, but the Constitutional Court will probably leave it for now, because it's not a direct threat now," he said.

The political analyst added that Pita, at 41 years old, still has a bright political future ahead of him.

"He's a very gifted politician, which means that he has a talent for representing people, has a talent for connecting with people and winning people's hearts and minds. That talent is something you don't buy. But above all, he's got the policy change and reform that people want to hear."

However, the analyst added the political situation in Thailand could convince Pita to leave politics and work in international organizations.

"He's still got time. It depends on how Thailand turns out. But he's not out, he can even take a break and still come back," Thitinan added.

A group of protesters holding umbrellas
Move Forward Party supporters protested on the streets of Bangkok after Pita's PM bid was blockedImage: Jack TAYLOR/AFP

Reformist platforms still popular with Thai public

Pita's reformist election campaign for the Move Forward Party still resonates with the Thai public. Their promise of reforms, coupled with their youthful appeal, endeared itself well with Thailand's younger generation, whether it was with orange-clad rallies or social media campaigns.

However, Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand, said voters were responding more to Move Forward Party's policies, rather than Pita as a political figure.

Pita's resignation "wouldn't have a big impact on the Move Forward Party because their supporters support the policies. I think it is capable of maintaining popularity among the Thai public," he said.

Pita isn't the first young Thai politician to lead a new reform party and run for government. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was the leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), a reformist political party that preceded Move Forward and ran for government in Thailand's general elections in 2019.

Although the party didn't win in the polls, Thanathorn was disqualified as a member of parliament over shares he owned in a media firm. His party was later dissolved by the Constitutional Court for violating election laws by receiving an illegal loan. The leaders of the FFP were later banned from politics for 10 years.

Titipol added Pita's future path could resemble that of Thanathorn.

"I think he will be like Thanathorn in politics. He was brought down by the court, but he still hopes to have a future in politics. I think that [Pita] will remain in politics in some forms to support."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn