Chuan Leekpai was the third child with nine siblings in the middle-class family residing in Trang province in the south of Thailand. Son of a schoolteacher, Chuan graduated from Thammasat University in 1962 with a law degree. He worked as a lawyer and, in 1964, became a member of the Thai Bar Association.
Later in 1985, Chuan received his Honorary Doctorate (Political Science) from Srinakarinwirot University, and in 1988, Honorary Doctorate (Political Science) from Ramkhamhaeng University.
In 1969, Chuan was elected to the Parliament as representative of Trang province for the first time. Since then, he has been elected for 11 terms: 1969, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1992 (2 terms), 1995, 1996.
He served in various capacities in the government and in 1991 he became the Leader of the Democratic Party. In elections held in September 1992, after the bloody and abortive coup by General Suchinda Kraprayoon, an anti-military pro-democracy coalition of parties led by Chuan Leekpai of the Democratic Party won a majority of seats by a narrow margin. Chuan became Thailand's first prime minister to come to power without either aristocratic or military backing or background.
In 1995, Chuan lost elections and served as the leader of the opposition. In late 1997, following the Asian Financial Crisis and the fall of the Chavalit Yongchaiyut administration he returned to power. The Democrats had lost popular support by 2000, mainly due to the way they handle the country's economy in compliance with restrictions imposed by IMF.
In 2001, after the Thai Rak Thai party led by Thaksin Shinawatra won in the national parliamentary elections (with some help of Thaksin's "anti-IMF rhetoric"), Chuan once again became a leader of the opposition. And later, in 2003, Chuan stepped down as Leader of Democrat Party, giving way to his protégé Abhisit Vejjajiva. Currently, Chuan is the Democrat Party Chief Adviser.