Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why election promises always ring hollow

Mar 20. 2019
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By The Nation

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For all their avowed generosity, few candidates seem to grasp the massive cost of fixing all our problems

We’re hearing all sorts of wonderful promises from the parties battling for votes in Sunday’s election. One party has pledged to raise the minimum daily wage to Bt400 or Bt425, to guarantee university graduates a monthly salary of at least Bt18,000-Bt20,000, to ensure old-age pensioners of Bt1,800 a month, and to pay farmers at least Bt18,000 for every tonne of jasmine rice they grow.

The price of agricultural commodities such as rubber and rice are being guaranteed elsewhere on the campaign trail too, in rhetoric at least. Ironically, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s last elected prime minister, was convicted over abuses in the rice-price pledging scheme her government introduced, and it operated on a 

similar principle.

Populist policies are certainly 

nothing new in Thai electoral politics. Everyone knows they produce little of fundamental lasting value, but populist policies are always around because the candidates know it’s an easy way to win votes. After all, everyone likes freebies, and if there’s an adverse effect on the national economy, someone else can worry about that.

While money is being proffered to every age and social group, from infants to elders and from the 

homeless to college graduates, there is little to suggest that the parties making the pledges fully understand the extent of the socio-economic problems choking off Thailand’s progress. And in a complex world, too few citizens are demanding more than just simple answers.

The candidates seem to believe they’ll have money to burn if elected to govern and they vow that every one of us will get a share. They will have plenty of money, to be sure – but only enough to cover basic services and keep the economy from sinking. Without fresh ideas as to how we can spend the money more fruitfully, there will be no resolution of existing problems. The promises being made should extend to dealing with these issues in a meaningful and sustainable way.

In the meantime there is the spectre of populist leaders such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte uprooting democratic institutions and dismantling checks and balances in a bid to gain more power. Thailand has had such leaders before and is never immune to authoritarianism. We should be becoming a more caring society, led by people who espouse democratic values and basic freedoms.  

In the midst of this campaign, 

two dozen non-governmental organisations issued a joint statement lamenting the dearth of party policies on the environment and children’s wellbeing. Just as important as these issues is the need to prioritise budget requirements. Often, one necessity must suffer for the sake of another. The candidates should be declaring what their priorities would be if elected. Will social needs, for example, take precedence over investments in the military or police? Will taxes have to be raised to pay for intended programmes?

It will then be up to the electorate, especially the middle class, to decide whether higher taxes would be tolerable. Most voters might agree to a reduction in the size of the military, but would such a powerful institution accept that?

Talk is cheap unless the facts are present to back up a statement. Progress is never made without political will. We can start by revamping the tax system to strengthen revenue collection. Vast infrastructure projects are proceeding, but what happens when all the roads and railways are complete? And if the infrastructure goes unused, it’s just empty shelves at the store.

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