Is 10k wallet scheme a political ploy?

Is 10k wallet scheme a political ploy?

PM Srettha Thavisin clarifies Pheu Thai's 10,000 baht digital wallet scheme on Friday. Chanat Katanyu
PM Srettha Thavisin clarifies Pheu Thai's 10,000 baht digital wallet scheme on Friday. Chanat Katanyu

The ambiguity over the source of funding for the government's controversial digital wallet scheme has finally been cleared.

At a news conference on Friday at Government House, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin declared his government will introduce a loan bill to obtain funding for the scheme.

He didn't elaborate on the sources of the loan although the amount needed is estimated to be 500 billion baht, down from the original estimate of about 560 billion baht.

He also did not disclose where the money will come from but it is believed it will come from two state-run banks, the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives and the Government Savings Bank.

However, there is one big problem facing the Finance Ministry, that is how to explain the urgency of the digital wallet scheme to justify the loan procurement via a bill that will have to be vetted by the Council of State, approved by cabinet and pass the scrutiny of parliament.

Move Forward Party deputy leader Sukanya Tansakul said the government is playing a high-risk game by resorting to a loan bill to procure the funding as the bill could be invalidated by the Constitutional Court on the basis the scheme is not urgent enough to justify such a huge loan.

Critics cite the 2 trillion baht loan bill to fund infrastructure megaprojects introduced by the previous Yingluck administration. A group of 66 MPs and senators asked the court to rule on the loan bill.

The court ruled unanimously by 9:0 to dismiss the bill as unconstitutional because the infrastructure projects were not urgent.

The legislative process was also ruled wrongful because one Pheu Thai MP was found to have voted for passage of the bill on behalf of a fellow member of parliament.

Is the government totally blind to this failed case of the Yingluck administration? Or is the government fully aware of it and chosing to do down the same path, which is to issue a loan bill and indirectly enlist the court to kill the scheme -- a flagship policy of the Pheu Thai Party -- because it does not want to be seen breaking its campaign pledge?

A similar loan executive decree for 700 billion baht was introduced by the Prayut administration during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decree did not encounter any problems because it was deemed urgent to save lives.

The money was needed for buying vaccines and anti-viral medication, compensate frontline medical personnel and public health volunteers who risked their lives to take care of the sick, save many small- and medium-sized businesses from going bankrupt and stimulate the economy. The loan was therefore justifiable.

By contrast, procuring 500 billion baht to fund the digital wallet scheme, widely seen as a populist policy to curry the favour of voters, can hardly be seen in the same urgent terms as in the end it will be the taxpayers who will have to shoulder the burden.

Apparently brimming with confidence, Prime Minister Srettha has set the May deadline for launching the scheme. But whether this can be achieved is still shrouded in uncertainty.

Move Forward Party list MP Sukanya said the party would prefer the Council of State rule on the legitimacy of the loan bill rather than raising the matter with the court.

But other opposition MPs and some senators who have opposed the scheme from the beginning may ask the court to rule on the loan bill, similar to the way critics asked for a ruling on the 2 trillion baht loan bill proposed by the Yingluck administration.

They might wait for the appropriate time, such as after passage of the loan bill by parliament.

Anyone with a modicum of wisdom can tell that giving away 10,000 baht to about 50 million people is not "urgently necessary" although the money will no doubt increase their purchasing power and will help stimulate the economy.

If it is not questioned on constitutional grounds, the scheme could also be deemed a violation of fiscal discipline and face a challenge from this angle.

Needless to say, any failure of the scheme will hurt the Pheu Thai Party's credibility and confidence.

Millions of people, particularly low-income earners, expect to get the 10,000 baht cash benefit from the government, not least because the government keeps promising it will deliver on the policy, despite what the critics have to say about it.

They will be disappointed if they miss out, thanks to a court ruling or by whatever means.

The setback of the government or more specifically the Pheu Thai Party as the initiator of the scheme will be a boon for the Move Forward Party, which may not have to do anything but sit back and watch the scheme unravel.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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