Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Put an end to 'feel-good' populist policies

With a tight election race coming, some political parties have rolled out populist policies to entice voters, hoping for a big victory. However, we all know those populist schemes require massive amounts of money, and not many have tangible benefits. It's safe to say that most, if not all, parties simply want to win the election at all costs.

Those parties are irresponsible, given that they do not care to mention the sources of the funds and the amount needed to deliver their populist policies while completely disregarding the side effects on the country’s struggling economy.

Under such circumstances, it’s necessary that the Election Commission (EC) scrutinise such outrageous policies to ensure that no parties push forward fanciful yet unrealistic schemes.

A quick look at the election campaign policies as unveiled by major political parties for the next election indicates that all are infused with various populist packages.

Bhumjaithai, to begin with, plans to expand debt suspension, with three-year interest exemption to cover all groups in addition to farmers and students.

The target is anyone with no more than one million baht in debt, while also increasing health volunteers’ per diem to 2,000 baht.

The Move Forward Party proposes a universal welfare scheme, with financial support provided to all vulnerable groups: kids aged 0-6 years old would receive 1,200 baht a month; 7-22 years old, 800 baht a month, while over 60-year-olds and people with disabilities would get 3,000 baht a month.

The Thai Sang Thai party focuses on old-age pensions, at 3,000 baht a month. Meanwhile, the Sang Anakhot Thai party pledges to establish a 100-billion-baht fund aimed at tackling debt among the poor.

Of course, more is to come.

However, the campaign policy that has been discussed the most is Pheu Thai’s 600-baht daily minimum wage. The party is adamant the rate will be possible by 2027, should the country’s GDP go up by 5%.

The policy is the brainchild of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his daughter, Paetongtarn. The current minimum wage, as approved by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government, is 345 baht per day, which is implemented only in six provinces, including Chon Buri, Rayong, and Phuket.

Thaksin — who is a fugitive and living a luxurious life in Dubai, said on his Clubhouse social media platform that the country has abundant money and, if Pheu Thai forms the next government, the economy should be stronger.

The daily wage is part of the 10-point policy, which includes a hike in new graduates’ salary to 25,000 baht a month.

The proposal has drawn ire from the private sector, which worries about the impacts of soaring inflation, while politicians reap the benefits. The industrial sector rejected the proposal outright.

The government and the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) have petitioned the Election Commission (EC) to examine the controversial policy. They allege the policy, which is seen as extremely populist and lacking practicality, may actually be unlawful.

But the PPRP itself is alleged to have failed in delivering its campaign policies, including a minimum wage of 400-425 baht, an increase in salary for new graduates and those finishing from vocational colleges, a 10% decrease in the income tax rate, all which it pledged in the last election.

Having realised its mistake, the PPRP sought an easy way out by erasing its policy promises from its website. Paiboon Nititawan of the PPRP said the data had to be removed as the party was preparing new policies for the next polls. What a shame!

In fact, there is a legal mechanism, as stipulated in the 2019 Constitution, to prevent political parties from going too far in populism. This exists to nip in the bud populist policies that enabled Thaksin’s parties to win all the elections since the 2000s.

According to Section 258 (3) of the charter, all political parties are required to analyse thoroughly the benefits and risks of their policies. If not, they must be held accountable.

The law makes it mandatory for all political parties to provide details about the budget and its sources for each of their policies, as well as give a costs/benefits and risks/impact analysis to ensure the practicality of the policies.

More importantly, the law requires the EC to see to it that all political parties complete this requirement to ensure there will be no irrational spending when they form a government and that members of the public will not be lured into voting for parties that aim to make big spending sprees for political gain.

It is unfortunate that the EC, an independent agency tasked with overseeing political parties and their activities, has stayed idle on this. It has allowed the PPRP to get away with those unfulfilled promises, particularly its failure to deliver the policy on a minimum wage increase.

It should be noted that Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin waited no time in scolding Pheu Thai for its minimum wage proposal, saying that the 600-baht rate would send investors elsewhere. Such a statement is a case of the kettle calling the pot black.

His PPRP, despite having been in power for almost four years, still has a long list of unfulfilled promises, especially the populist welfare scheme that was initially rolled out by Sonthirat Sontijirawong, the then PPRP secretary-general, and the breakaway team when they formulated the PPRP policies.

Among them is a mother and child welfare scheme, which totals 181,100 baht. In detail, expectant mothers are to get a 3,000 baht-a-month subsidy during pregnancy, while there is childbirth support at 10,000 baht (one child only); a child raising subsidy, at 2,000 baht a month from birth until six years. The PPPR has never implemented this electoral promise.

The party defended its idleness, saying the mother and child welfare is the duty of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, which is under the Democrats. That is a lame excuse.

In fact, not being able to fulfil all promises may be acceptable. But at least the politicians should have convinced us that they did give it a try or explained to us what the obstacles were that made it impossible to translate such policies into action over nearly four years.

Unless the EC takes action, all political parties will think it’s fine to do the same and scramble to propose populist policies irresponsibly. Such a practice should no longer be tolerated, or the country’s economy will be at tremendous risk.

If necessary, the law may need to be amended to toughen the penalties to put an end to such feel-good yet irresponsible policies.

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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