Big handouts, bad politics

Big handouts, bad politics

The cabinet's decision last week to dole out some 87 billion baht was as ill-timed as it was poorly justified. The government up to and including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha have done a poor job of explaining the sudden largesse.

Instead of providing a strong rationale for the massive spending, ministers have left it up to the country to draw conclusions. Most people seem to feel it was sheer populism timed to influence the coming general election campaign.

Gen Prayut's offhand remark that the bulk of the sudden bounty was "a New Year's gift" certainly supports that conclusion. The idea that tax monies are some kind of gift fund is fundamentally wrong, both legally and politically. Government has no legal fiat to allocate or reallocate tax income as a holiday giveaway. There was little or no self-awareness in that statement.

What is in effect a very large giveaway consists of several programmes. The biggest is a huge 38.7-billion-baht handout in cash. For instance, around 14.5 million people in lower-income brackets will get a 500-baht note in December. Those over 65 will get 1,000 baht in cash, allegedly because they need travel-expense money to get to and from medical treatment.

These 500-baht and 1,000-baht cash handout programmes, in particular, have resulted in cynical comments in both mainstream and social media for their similarity to pre-election cash giveaways by political parties in the past.

Every free election in Thailand has sparked stories of such "gifts" from political parties to voters. Probably because of such past actions, it is practically inevitable that any government programme involving small cash payments will spark cynical comparisons.

The exceptionally poor handling of the situation has left a bad taste. Worse, it comes directly on the heels of a series of purely political moves seen, again, as designed to help the military regime. The startling use of Section 44 to give more time to the Election Commission to draw constituency boundaries was explained by the EC's chairman needing eye surgery work.

The refusal of the regime and cabinet to act as caretakers rather than activists is a violation of public trust. No constitutional government would even have access to such massive amounts of public money as were doled out last week as if it were a favour to welfare recipients.

Tradition, good governance and the supreme law all mandate that an outgoing government must not institute new policies or open the treasury the way this regime has done.

Through all of this, the government has acted in a cavalier fashion. Ironically, the almost total lack of openness in recent days occurred as its National Legislative Assembly launched the debate on a new bill concerning government openness.

It is curious, then, why Gen Prayut failed to make even a token effort to explain his rather sudden decision to lavish 87 billion baht on the lowest-earning families. He could have explained it as another step in creating a viable welfare net.

The fact, however, is that the handouts are doled out so that they will be spent quickly, even immediately. That is the opposite of a welfare safety net.

It is significant, then, that the continuing Nida popularity poll took a sudden turn last week. Plied with facts on questionable election fairness, voters reversed the consistent faith they had put in Gen Prayut and his political organisation.

For the moment, at least, they favour the Pheu Thai Party and its high-profile core member, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan. Opinion can easily swing back, but for now at least voters have sent Gen Prayut a message he should carefully consider.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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