Legal hurdle may help PT axe handout
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Legal hurdle may help PT axe handout

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on Nov 10 explains the new criteria for the government's 10,000-baht digital wallet programme, saying that it will begin next May. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on Nov 10 explains the new criteria for the government's 10,000-baht digital wallet programme, saying that it will begin next May. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The latest incarnation of the much-vaunted digital wallet scheme is very different from the original version Pheu Thai promoted during its election campaign.

Major changes to the controversial 10,000-baht digital money handout scheme are perceived as a tactic of the Srettha Thavisin government to -- while avoiding any obvious culpability -- backtrack on its flagship policy, which would otherwise end up as a deathtrap for the party.

Apart from changes to who is eligible to receive the money, the government has also decided to change the source of funding for the scheme by taking out a loan.

Whereas the previous plan stated that it applied to every Thai citizen over the age of 16 years, the new version extends the criteria: they must now also earn less than 70,000 baht per month and have under 500,000 baht in bank deposits.

The new criteria regarding the eligibility of recipients will cut back the budget for the handout from 560 billion baht to 500 billion baht, and it will be paid through the existing Pao Tang app, not a new wallet app, as previously declared.

More significantly, in order to borrow money for the scheme, the government must issue a loan bill, which will require endorsement from parliament and will undoubtedly be a time-consuming process.

Issuing a loan bill for the controversial scheme is the exact opposite of the original plan, which was to either use the annual budget to obtain the funds or to borrow from the Government Savings Bank (GSB), a state bank known for family savings.

Both options have faced strong criticism.

The loan from GSB for such purposes is unthinkable as it opposes the bank's philosophy, which is to strengthen family savings while using the annual budget would mean the state coffers would dry up, with no money left for other government investment projects or public welfare.

There's an irony here.

While insisting the scheme is urgent and vital to rejuvenate the sluggish economy quickly, the government has decided to issue a loan bill instead of an executive decree that would enable it to expedite the process and get the handout to the public right away while seeking parliamentary approval later.

The latter is too risky, politically.

It's understood that the government will proceed with the reopening of parliament in one or two months so that it can table the bill -- which is currently being scrutinised by the Council of State --for deliberation.

By seeking parliamentary approval for the bill, the scheme will be delayed, probably for half a year or so, from the original launch date that was set for Feb 1 next year.

There are grounds to believe the Pheu Thai must hope or even pray that such major changes to the digital wallet scheme and the new tactics it is employing could at least save it from the political axe.

At least, those changes strongly imply the Pheu Thai Party may no longer want to push ahead with the scheme.

But instead of dropping the scheme itself -- an act that could land the party in political hot water given that it could be tantamount to luring voters to support the party for something that was promised but not delivered -- it has instead set the stage for the plan's cancellation.

To put it bluntly, such major changes make it possible for other players, such as the charter court or parliament, to kill the scheme before it is conceived, should it be considered unconstitutional and contrary to the Financial and Budgetary Discipline Act BE 2561.

After all, such an abrupt end to a loan bill is not unprecedented in Thailand's history.

The former Yingluck Shinawatra government had such an experience when the Constitutional Court shot down its loan bill that was planned for the 2-trillion-baht high-speed train project.

In principle, the collapse of the bill, a finance-related piece of legislation, could have seen the end of the Yingluck administration.

Yet, the nation's first female prime minister chose to ignore any political responsibility.

Harsh as it may seem, the abrupt end to the digital wallet scheme could be a blessing in disguise for the Srettha government, and perhaps they realise that, too.

The government and Pheu Thai have prepared for a worst-case scenario as its opponents are said to have rolled up their sleeves and have already submitted the wallet scheme to the charter court.

The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Office of the Auditor General set up a panel studying the impact of the digital wallet to avoid severe setbacks like Pheu Thai's ill-fated rice-pledging scheme.

The opposition has joined the anti-digital wallet bandwagon and is preparing to use Section 245 of the charter -- which gives the Senate and independent agencies the power to block the controversial scheme.

Eventually, the Srettha government's loan bill might have the same fate as Yingluck's loan attempt.

Mr Srettha himself may be forced to quit as a show of responsibility if the scheme is ruled unconstitutional.

It's quite likely Pheu Thai may have foreseen these legal hurdles. After all, it would be better if the charter court were to put the brakes on the digital wallet scheme.

The implementation of such a controversial scheme could be excessively costly for those directly involved in its planning as they could be subject to criminal charges, in the same way that former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyaphirom et al were punished in the scandalous rice-pledging scheme.

After all, Pheu Thai has a Plan B ready, should Mr Srettha tumble down from his political pedestal as a result of the digital scheme blunder.

As the countdown begins for the scheme to either be killed off or implemented, the party still has Paetongtarn Shinawatra on standby, as she appears, many have noted, to have been groomed for the top position.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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