Get budget priorities right

Get budget priorities right

The Prayut Chan-o-cha administration faces a crucial challenge from the opposition in the debate on the 2020 fiscal budget bill scheduled to begin on Thursday morning.

It's the kind of challenge that the army-chief-turned-politician and his regime did not experience after the 2014 coup as the prime minister had full control over the military-appointed National Legislature Assembly (NLA). The opposition has vowed to grill the administration over the proposed 3.2-trillion-baht spending plan, the highest in Thailand's history, during the debate that may be extended to Saturday. The second reading will take place in January.

With its razor-thin majority, the Prayut government will need to fight hard to survive politically. The vote on the budget bill is a high-stakes battle between the Phalang Pracharath Party (PPRP)-led coalition government which currently has 251 MPs, and the Pheu Thai-led opposition which has 244 MPs. Defeat in the political showdown that starts today could end up either with the government being forced to step down or dissolving the House -- both bad for the generals' political careers -- in accordance with political tradition.

While there is no vote after the first reading, the deliberations could make public incongruities in the budget allocation process, and highlight that the priorities seem wrong.

Criticism has escalated over the massive defence budget proposal for 2020. The defence budget began to soar after the military seized power and has kept rising ever since. Worse, the Prayut regime in 2017 decided to go ahead with controversial projects such as the purchase of three submarines from China. The submarine decision drew a public outcry as the previous elected governments had stalled the purchase plan. The military regime has since come up with plans to buy more and more military hardware.

According to the National War College in Washington DC, in 2018 Thailand had the third-largest military budget in Southeast Asia at US$6.8 billion (about 210 billion baht). This amount, which accounted for 17% of total Asean defence spending, raised eyebrows given that Thailand does not appear to face any imminent threats.

The 2020 budget bill sees defence remaining as one of the ministries with the highest budget proposals, at about 230 billion baht, a 6-billion-baht increase from this year. Counting security affairs, the budget proposal will total 428 billion baht.

It's true that the Education Ministry will still receive the biggest share of the 2020 fiscal year budget, but this is down significantly compared to previous years. Two other ministries that have asked for big budget allocations are Transport and Finance. The administration has also been criticised for its plans to set aside more than 500 billion for the general budget, which gives it a virtual licence to spend almost without scrutiny from the opposition.

With its huge spending plans on defence and security, it's evident the administration has little intention of using the money to stimulate the economy or, better yet, serving other noble principles such as building up a welfare state and narrowing the income gap that would bring Thailand closer to being a just society.

Opposition parties have made it clear they will target the enormous defence budget. If they perform well in their budget scrutiny, they will win public support and trust. Unlike the past five years when the NLA acted as a regime rubber stamp, it is hoped that the strong opposition will play a constructive role in ensuring the administration gets its budget priorities right.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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