Srettha’s got some serious explaining to do

To different people, Bt10,000 is worth differently. In other words, one rural man can use it to buy a food stockpile that may last a year or even longer, while real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin will find it totally insufficient for one small evening party with friends. Why the two men should be entitled to the same government generosity or charity is a question that the Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate must address thoroughly.

To say that the two men have “equal rights” as stated by the Constitution is not enough. Srettha has been using that argument a lot lately as debate gets more intense over the Pheu Thai Party’s digital wallet policy that he strongly advocates. He’s practically the face of the controversial idea now, so it’s his job to explain why the government should give free milk or free lunch to both poor and rich kids without exception.

Major tweaks or even U-turn are possible, but, yes, without serious adjustment, giving Bt10,000 to anyone aged 16 or older in Thailand is the same as sending free milk to the most affluent schools or giving free education to children who join summer camps in Europe every year. If Pheu Thai becomes the next government and the digital money policy goes on as it original draft, Srettha would get that money too, and so would families whose garages are packed with supercars.

Legally, what stands in the way of digital wallets is real and daunting. The concept sounds like the issuance of coupons valid for a specific time and at specific community shops. This would spark debate on whether we can call it money or cash and the Central Bank will be dragged right into the middle of the certain uproar. There will be a mountain of legal issues to overcome if the policy is to be implemented.

Economically, many people are worried that there exist major risks. If all “digital money” was spent and vendors who received it wanted to cash all at once, a state budget in the region of Bt560 billion would be required. This is a major discipline and alleged “populism” question.

In its statement sent to the Election Commission, Pheu Thai said the fund would come from an increased state income next year, greater tax payment, and adjusted budgetary management that would include re-directing “duplicated” welfare burdens. The policy can be subject to changes in accordance with the country’s financial status, the party said.

Srettha and other defenders insist it will stimulate the economy. That, critics say, is assuming that the “digital money” will be spent wisely and the wealthy who receive it will be considerate enough not to use it like a windfall and put state coffers in jeopardy in the process. Pheu Thai also seems to assume that there will not be a reckless rush to spend when the deadline is near leading people to buy things they don’t actually want and sellers to produce things that will not have been sold otherwise.

The project requires that key economic activities must go strictly as planned, according to critics and skeptics. Current tax targets must be absolutely met so that the policy can be largely funded. The vendors must succeed in creating sustainable businesses so the tax base can be increased. (It’s not wrong to try to expand the tax base, but the Bt560 billion attempt is controversial.)

Politically, some people suspect that it’s an advertisement that “bluffs” Move Forward as much as the perceived enemies who include Prayut Chan-o-cha and his allies. While Move Forward is selling intangible ideological outcomes, Pheu Thai is offering voters real and immediate “benefits”, it is said.

Some analysts say that Bt10,000, whether it’s in fact a token with an expiry date, can pull back voters who have begun to think that Move Forward is more ideologically committed while Pheu Thai is too individualised and not in a good way. An ordinary countryman can forget about Article 112 if he believes that Bt10,000 will be wired to him if he marks Pheu Thai in both constituency and party-list ballots.

Marking Pheu Thai in both ballots will enhance landslide chances but it can seriously affect Move Forward. No voter would select a Pheu Thai constituency candidate and give the popular vote to Prayut’s Ruam Thai Sang Chart. Some might pick a Pheu Thai candidate and give Move Forward the popular vote, though, but the digital money can make those pondering spilt votes think twice.

Are political parties shortchanging the economy with populist platforms?   

But legal, economic and political questions give way to the moral one in this case. Srettha will have to dig his way out of the “free milk for all” tunnel. As a Pheu Thai flagbearer, he has done the right thing in pushing for a policy. He has also been busy defending it, but not thoroughly.

Pheu Thai may argue that similar offers are being made by other parties during this election campaign, or that the “Bt30 treats every disease” policy is also blanket. Differences are that the Bt30 programme was a promise of medical services that only the poor would seek, and the other campaign promises do not trigger the rich-versus-poor moral dilemma.

Srettha’s “all Thais have equal rights” argument risks being deemed a double standard as well. The party has fought tooth and nail to reinstall the two-ballot election system that some say is not as good as the one-ballot system when “equal rights” are concerned.

Proponents said the one-ballot system better reflected the proportional representation concept, meaning rights of the people who voted for losing candidates were respected through the transformation of their votes for constituency candidates into popular votes. The return to the two-ballot system which Pheu Thai likes does not respect the people who voted for losing constituency candidates as much, it was said.

(Regarding the argument that fans of the losers could still cast separate popular votes for the parties they like, the one-ballot system came with a calculation formula that seemed to favour small parties and unkind to big ones that won a lot of constituency seats already. The two-ballot system does not have that kind of ceilings.)

Srettha will need to explain why Pheu Thai didn’t like the arguments that it was more democratic for votes cast for the losers to mean something, especially if a contest was close, like when a loser gets beaten by just a few votes. He will have to give a convincing reason why it is all right to give Bt10,000 to everyone of rich Thais but it is not proper to honour the right of voters who support election losers.

Every political vow is designed to appease voters at the expense of opponents, so every party is guilty more or less of over-advertisement. But if Pheu Thai’s promise of a Bt600 daily minimum payment for unskilled workers threatens to cross the line, this one appeared to have gone way past it, economically, politically and morally. While doubts to be fair may not affect the eventual election outcome, it’s Srettha’s duty to shoot them all down.

By Tulsathit Taptim


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