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Pita Limjaroenrat, and the man who sparked a life in politics, former NZ prime minister Jim Bolger. Photos: Getty Images
Pita Limjaroenrat, and the man who sparked a life in politics, former NZ prime minister Jim Bolger. Photos: Getty Images

PoliticsMay 15, 2023

How Jim Bolger and New Zealand TV inspired the big winner in Thailand’s election

Pita Limjaroenrat, and the man who sparked a life in politics, former NZ prime minister Jim Bolger. Photos: Getty Images
Pita Limjaroenrat, and the man who sparked a life in politics, former NZ prime minister Jim Bolger. Photos: Getty Images

From an awakening in ‘middle of nowhere’ Hamilton to the top of Thai politics, Pita Limjaroenrat is on the brink of becoming prime minister.

“Sensational” is how the leader of opposition party Move Forward, Pita Limjaroenrat, has described results in the Thai election that appear to signal the end of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the hardline prime minister who came to power in a coup nine years ago. In distinct contrast, Pita is the picture of a global-minded, dynamic, reformist leader. A 42-year-old educated at Harvard and former tech executive, he heads a party set upon overhauling draconian laws.

Also on his CV is this: a stint of schooling in New Zealand, where a lack of television options and Jim Bolger speeches engendered a remarkable political awakening.

Move Forward, the party led by Pita since 2020, is in the lead with 99% of votes counted in Thailand, reports Associated Press. The party is a whisker ahead of Pheu Thai, the opposition party led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself removed from office in a coup in a military coup in 2006. 

Images of Pita “Tim” Limjaroenrat at a Move Forward Party rally on May 12. (Photo: Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images)

As reported by the Guardian, Pita told a Thai YouTube channel that his time studying in New Zealand “truly sparked his love for politics”. He said: “I got shipped to the middle of nowhere in New Zealand and there were three channels back then. Either you watch Australian soap operas, or you watch the debates in parliament.” While doing his homework, he said, he would listen to broadcasts of speeches by Jim Bolger, the National prime minister from 1990 to 1997.

In a 2012 interview, Pita is quoted as saying he was “mischievous, smoking and fighting” at school in Thailand, prompting his father to send his then 12-year-old son “to study in New Zealand … to go away and be a good boy”. In a separate interview he complained that there wasn’t much to do in New Zealand, “only nature and sheep”, and that cigarettes could not be bought by those under 18. During his time in the Waikato, his “rowdy” side was tempered by tasks including “picking strawberries, delivering milk, cycling and delivering newspapers”.

He lived with a farming family near Hamilton, according to a speech he gave to the New Zealand Thai Centre in 2019. The role of television, and its shortage of options, in early 90s New Zealand, clearly left its imprint. “When I was a 12- and 13-year-old in New Zealand, they only had three TV channels,” he said. “I still remember watching prime minister Jim Bolger at that time debate in parliament. I also vividly remember that New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.”

Jim Bolger in 1997. Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

The son of a former adviser to the Thai agriculture minister, Pita has in recent years achieved celebrity-level status in Thai politics. Nicknamed “Tim”, he is “considered a political heart-throb, inspiring pop-star levels of hysteria from his supporters”, according to a Channel News Asia profile

There is no guarantee that Pita will become prime minister, nor even that Move Forward will form a government. Opposition parties will need to hammer out a governing deal, while a joint house-senate session is tasked with selecting the prime minister. That is further complicated by the fact that all 250 members of the senate are appointed by the Royal Thai Military, tilting the balance against the 500 members of the House of Representatives. Recent history suggests Move Forward, like its predecessor the Future Forward Party, is vulnerable to technical legal challenges. 

Pita’s Move Forward proved especially popular among younger, urban voters, emphasising in its campaign the need for reform of the military and lèse-majesté laws which make insulting the monarchy a criminal offence. The party is close to a clean sweep of seats in the capital, Bangkok.

Under Pita, Move Forward “is surging in the polls,” according to an AP analysis previewing election day, “galvanising especially younger voters as it boldly advocates for reform of the military and monarchy, the latter a sensitive subject since the institution has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.”

In a social media post this morning, Pita said he would be a prime minister for all Thai people, saying: “Whether you agree or disagree with me, I will be your prime minister. Whether you voted for me or not, I will serve you … Together we will change this country.”

Did you go to school with a potential future Thai prime minister in early-90s New Zealand? Let us know: 


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