The unofficial winner of Thailand’s election has told CNN he will work to “demilitarize” the country, in his first one-on-one interview since Sunday’s poll.
Pita Limjaroenrat’s progressive Move Forward Party is on track to win the largest share of seats and the popular vote, according to unofficial results, far ahead of the party of incumbent Prime Minister – and 2014 coup leader – Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Pita, a 42-year-old Harvard alumni, said his policy priorities over the next four years will be to “demilitarize, demonopolize and decentralize” Thailand.
“With the three-prong approach, that’s the only way that we can fully democratize Thailand and make sure that Thailand is back to business, Thailand is back in the global arena, and make sure that the country … is contributing but also benefiting by the definition of globalization,” he said.
Opposition parties swept the board in Sunday’s nationwide election as voters delivered a powerful rebuke of the military-backed establishment that has ruled for nearly a decade since the coup, capping years of rising anger over how conservative cliques have governed the kingdom.
Move Forward had gained a huge following among young Thais for its reformist platform, which included radical plans to amend the country’s strict lese majeste laws despite the taboo surrounding any discussion of the royal family in Thailand.
The party’s proposed structural changes to the military include getting rid of the draft, reducing the budget, making it more transparent and accountable, and reducing the number of generals.
Pita said the party’s success in Sunday’s election, in which a record number of Thais voted, showed those policies resonate not only with the young but across society. “That’s pretty sensational,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear that people have demanded change here in Thailand… it’s very clear that the sentiment of the era has changed and we have developed a consensus for a new day here,” Pita said.
Following the election, the Move Forward leader said he was in talks with the other opposition parties to form a coalition and secure enough of a majority in the lower house of parliament to form a government.
Among those parties is the populist Pheu Thai, which is aligned with the powerful Shinawatra family that had dominated every Thai election since 2001 before placing second in Sunday’s vote.
“The coalition is taking shape as we speak,” Pita said.
Despite voters delivering a vocal call for change by overwhelmingly rejecting military-backed parties, it’s not yet certain who will take power.
A major roadblock is the unelected 250-seat senate, which is chosen entirely by the military and has previously voted for a pro-military candidate.
A party or coalition needs to win a majority in both houses to elect a prime minister and form a government.
Pita said the unity of the senators is not the same as it was four years ago when they unanimously voted to elect Prayut as prime minister. They must also take into account the “significant shift in public opinion” that has developed since 2019, he said.
“If we keep communicating and we keep explaining what we’re trying to do for the country, and how well we mean for the future of this country, I think that will not be a significant roadblock. And the price to pay, the cost of going against 25 million votes here in Thailand will be very hefty,” Pita said.
Asked what would happen if Thailand’s military tried to subvert election outcomes, Pita said, “we have to minimize the risk” of subversion.
Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, won the third most seats in the 2019 election. Shortly afterward, several of the party’s leaders were banned from politics and the party was later dissolved after a court ruled it had violated electoral finance rules.
Thailand has witnessed a dozen successful coups since 1932, including two in the past 17 years.
But Pita said he’s prepared for every scenario.
“I’m not worried but I’m not careless as well. I’ve been in politics in Thailand for the past 20 years, so I can see the brutality of politics,” he said, adding that he has a strong team around him to “make sure we don’t give out any easy targets.”
“Yes, there are professional and personal attacks against me but I have prepared in the past in order to clarify and explain and make sure I have a strong legal basis for anything that comes my way,” Pita said.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayut said “the formation of the new government will be in process” and he will perform his duty as leader and head of the cabinet to “the best of my abilities” while waiting for the new government to be formed.