By NOPHAKHUN LIMSAMARNPHUN
THE AGE of neo-populism has emerged in Thailand, with at least four political parties vying on state-welfare-cum-populist platforms in the next general election scheduled for February 24.
Phalang Pracharat Party, whose leaders are members of the outgoing Prayut Cabinet, is the front-runner on this platform exemplified by the state welfare card scheme, which already has more than 14 million low-income members.
This government spent Bt19.2 billion in 2017 on the popular scheme aimed at helping farmers and people whose annual income is less than Bt100,000 per year or Bt8,300 per month.
Another Bt27 billion was spent on the scheme in the first eight months of this year, with an additional Bt53 billion earmarked for the third quarter of the year and 2019.
The junta-led government kicked off this scheme in 2016 by inviting low-income earners nationwide to register for state welfare at the closest branch of three state-owned banks, namely Krungthai, Government Savings Bank and Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.
The first round of registration attracted 8.3 million people, 5.4 million of whom were non-farmers and 2.9 million from the farming community. Those earning less than Bt30,000 per year, or Bt2,500 per month, were given a one-time Bt3,000 each, while those with annual incomes of between Bt30,000 and Bt100,000 were given Bt1,500 each.
Later, the new cardholders were given more conditions to meet. First, they had to be at least 18 years old with an annual income of less than Bt100,000 as of 2016 and second, their financial assets could not exceed Bt100,000.
The third condition was if they owned a house or condo unit, the area could not exceed 25 square wah or 35 square metres respectively. If they own land, it cannot exceed 1 rai per person, while farmers cannot own more than 10 rai per person.
Household expenses for welfare cardholders are also low due to a Bt300 per person subsidy on daily necessities, on cooking gas, a monthly Bt500 subsidy on transport expenses per person per month, covering trains, buses, Skytrain and subway.
Welfare cardholders can also apply for occupational training courses, so they can boost their income with new skills.
The Phalang Pracharat Party is expected to back Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to form the next government.
Future Forward Party’s platform also includes a comprehensive welfare policy. Led by Thanathorn Jungrungruangkij, the party wants to extend maternity leave to 180 days, and give parents a childcare subsidy of Bt1,200 per month per child until they turn six.
If elected, the party also promises to give college students aged 18 to 22 a monthly subsidy of Bt2,000, and increase the current monthly subsidy for senior citizens from Bt600 to Bt1,800.
The party said a comprehensive welfare scheme will cost approximately Bt650 billion per year, which will be covered by cutting the Defence Ministry’s budget by 30 per cent as well as cutting the Board of Investment’s privileges and other tax-allowance programmes. The scheme will also be financed by a hike in land tax and proceeds from legalisation of the underground lottery.
The party seeks to cut the country’s defence spending by Bt64 billion to about 1.1 per cent of the country’s GDP.
The party’s other reform policies include aiming to slow down the growth of big monopolistic groups, revamping the military, boosting democratic values, decentralising the government, overhauling the education sector and upgrading agriculture.
As for the Democrats, leader Abhisit Vejjajiva announced that his party had six policies to help low-income earners, and promised that if elected, the first policy would be to issue proper land-title deeds for farmers to replace the other, inferior documents they had been given.
For instance, he said, the Sor Por Kor document for land granted to small-scale farmers would become an “inheritance” document that can be used as collateral for loans.
Second, the party will establish a community water fund to help farmers get access to water resources all year.
Third, the party will guarantee a minimum income for all farmers, for instance, rice farmers will get Bt10,000 for every tonne of rice they produce, rubber farmers will get Bt60 for every kilogram of rubber sheet and palm-oil farmers Bt10 for every kilo of palm oil.
Fourth, the party will guarantee an annual minimum income of Bt120,000 for manual workers.
Fifth, senior citizens will get Bt1,000 per month, and sixth, people earning less than Bt100,000 per year will get a monthly subsidy of Bt800.
However, Abhisit did not explain how the party will finance these schemes. Meanwhile, Pheu Thai Party has chosen not to announce details of its policies too early because it does not want them to be copied by rivals. However, Pheu Thai Party in all its incarnations has been known for its welfare-cum-populist policies, especially in the early 2000s, when Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister.
At this stage, the party’s top candidates for leadership – Chatchart Sitthiphan and Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan – are only criticising the current welfare card scheme and other related policies.
They also say the middle- and low-income groups have been hit hard by mismanagement of the economy, resulting in an uneven distribution of wealth.
In his speech, Chatchart cited the latest opinion surveys showing the government’s failure to improve the population’s well-being, while public and household debts have outstripped economic and income growth.
The economic outlook has also been battered by a lack of public and investor confidence, which he said, will only be restored if the election is transparent and fair.
He also lambasted the government’s high-speed train project linking Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang and U-tapao airports. Instead, he said, the government should have opted for an inter-provincial railway that would deliver more economic benefits and spread public infrastructure development to other parts of the country.
As for the welfare card system, he said it was inefficient and had not helped stimulate the economy because it was only a temporary solution to tackling poverty.
He promised that if his party were elected, it will ensure that people have better opportunities to reduce their poverty.
Sudarat, meanwhile, said Thai citizens – from downtown Bangkok to Khon Kaen province – were unhappy with this government’s performance because the economy remained sluggish and the household debts were on the rise. She said Pheu Thai was experienced in economic management and will deliver a stronger economy if it is chosen to form the next administration.
She also accused the incumbents of not being able to generate new income and opting for tax hikes to cover budget shortfalls.
Instead, she said, her party will focus on boosting the price of agricultural products to tackle poverty and give the country a bigger role in the international trade arena.