Will ‘welfare state’ promises be honoured?
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Will ‘welfare state’ promises be honoured?

Following the general election yesterday, elected politicians will be closely watched how and whether they will keep the many promises made during their poll campaigns. One is their pledge to make Thailand a “welfare state”. Pheu Thai vows to improve the existing Universal Healthcare Coverage scheme, initiated by its precursor Thai Rak Thai. It also came up with a fresh idea of a “lottery savings” scheme that will encourage personal savings through the purchase of a lottery ticket.

A universal allowance for children is promoted by many parties including the Democrats, Future Forward (FFP), Chartpattana and even the pro-military Palang Pracharath (PPRP). The FFP also offers an extension of maternal leave from 90 to 180 days.

Many parties also pledge to increase the current universal allowance for the elderly. Bhumjai Thai promotes a four-day work week at the office. Workers can work from home for the rest of the week.

Even though observers have questioned whether the state will have enough money to cover these proposals, I do think that the welfare schemes can help address one of the biggest challenges of the country -- the widening inequality gap. As of 2018, according to the Global Wealth datebook by Credit Suisse, the top 1% controls 66.9% of national wealth.

When it comes to financing, a new government can consider reforming the tax structure to get more money into the state coffers, the issue that has been overlooked by the military regime.

By the time parliament is opened, new MPs should discuss how they can kickstart and finance their social welfare promises.

But with the election system and mechanisms set up in the favour of the junta, Gen Prayut and his alliance will likely rise to power and push back against such a universal welfare agenda.

Moreover, MPs from those parties pledging universal welfare schemes may give higher priorities to other issues.

For example, in coming weeks they will be busy with coalition wheelings and dealings prior to voting for prime minister. Then, pro-democracy MPs will also have to fulfil their other promises to put an end to the military’s interference in politics by pushing for amendments to the constitution. This could result in a delay in implementing their social welfare schemes. It would be a shame if that happened.

Twenty five years ago, the concept of a welfare state hardly existed. Governments then just provided charitable aid to specific groups of people identified as “poor” or “destitute”.

In 2002, the Thai Rak Thai government launched the Universal Healthcare Coverage scheme that provided healthcare access to 49 million people. It was the first scheme that offered a universal social safety net to people without setting pre-determined conditions on which income groups were eligible for it.

Later the Democrat government launched a universal allowance programme for the elderly in 2006 and a universal 15-year free education scheme in 2009.

Thailand was considered progressive back then. These schemes have made Thais hope that Thailand could be a welfare state. The public’s support for universal welfare schemes have forced many parties to come up with more similar policies -- something that we didn’t see in previous elections.

The military regime is aware of the trend as well. It has introduced the welfare card for the poor scheme that provides a monthly subsidy to over 14 million people. The pro-regime PPRP has heavily promoted the scheme as part of its policies.

But there is one distinction between the regime’s welfare scheme and those proposed by other parties: the class issue. The welfare card for the poor programme reflects the concept used by the state more than two decades ago when handouts were given to people classified as “the poor” or “the destitute”.

But providing social welfare to people based on their income levels is hardly an effective means either. For example, children of the rich can be eligible for the welfare card scheme if they don’t have records of income in their bank accounts.

This type of social welfare that targets specific groups of people is less effective than the universal ones. With administrative errors, those who need support the most may not get it.

Meanwhile, the military regime has often blamed existing universal safety nets, especially the Universal Healthcare Coverage scheme, for being “populist” and creating a “burden” on the state.

How can the country move forward if its leader keeps attacking such work initiated by progressive parties?

We can build a welfare state that redistributes wealth more widely to the people, if the state start treating all the people equally and stop making social welfare a class issue.

Paritta Wongkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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