EC says welfare cash not a ruse for election
Critics see it as a regime ploy for PPRP to gain edge
The Election Commission (EC) has leapt to the defence of the state welfare scheme for low-income earners, criticised as a populist policy and a thinly veiled attempt to support a pro-regime party's campaign ahead of the Feb 24 poll.
It comes after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has hinted on several occasions now that he may throw his hat in the ring.
EC secretary-general Jarungvith Phumma was responding to parties' calls for the EC to look into whether the scheme has benefited the fledgling election campaign of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
Pol Col Jarungvith said the scheme is a legitimate one that does not merit a probe by the commission.
The public can tell the difference between a helpful state policy and the misuse of state funds, he added.
Asked if the EC would step in to regulate any government approval of state projects when a royal decree calling for the election is expected on Jan 2, Pol Col Jarungvith said the EC would first need to study the legal requirements.
Previously, Democrat Party member Jurin Laksanavisit called on the commission to look into the conduct of a specific political party for allegedly campaigning for votes before the ban on political activities was lifted on Tuesday.
Without identifying the party, believed to be the PPRP, Mr Jurin said some among its ranks had also tried to recruit members by promising them cash.
The Democrat also lashed out at four government figures who have yet to resign from their cabinet posts since joining the PPRP, potentially creating a conflict of interest.
Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana serves as the PPRP leader while Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee is its deputy leader.
Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong is the party's secretary-general and PM's Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool was appointed spokesman.
Since the cash handouts were launched on Dec 8, 4.6 million recipients have cashed out 2.3 billion baht. Another 850,000 recipients have spent 425 million baht buying goods at Thong Fah Pracharat shops, according to the Comptroller-General's Department.
The handouts are part of the government's 86.9-billion-baht splurge on low-income earners, the elderly and retirees, a spending scheme that the government has styled as a New Year gift.
The one-time payout of 500 baht has been deposited in smart welfare cards. Cardholders can withdraw the money from state-owned Krungthai Bank's ATMs nationwide.
Other measures include a one-off 1,000 baht in travel expenses for people aged 65 and older who are in need of medical treatment, and 400 baht per month from December to September for those aged 60 and older for home rental payments.
The government is counting on the measures to boost domestic demand and cushion Thailand against the global economic slowdown.
Addressing the Finance Ministry's plan to supply registered low-income earners with a mobile phone SIM card offering a free internet connection, Gen Prayut brushed aside criticism the project would benefit major telecoms operators.
"No small operators will do it, except the major operators. So they should be entitled to the business benefits they deserve," he said during a mobile cabinet trip to Nong Khai yesterday.
Gen Prayut insisted the primary aim of the free SIM cards was to give the poor access to internet-based sources of information and news that concerns them, rather than for entertainment purposes such as watching films, playing games or listening to music.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is finalising the total costs and details, including data allotment, Gen Prayut said.
Only low-income earners with a state welfare card will be eligible to receive the free internet SIM.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said yesterday the government has already received a draft of the royal decree on the election of MPs from the EC. The draft will be submitted for royal endorsement shortly.
He said the royal decree will be issued within 90 days of the law on the election of MPs taking effect on Dec 11.
However, according to the election time frame released at a meeting on Dec 7 between the National Council for Peace and Order and party representatives, the royal decree will be issued on Jan 2 to pave the way for the officially confirmed Feb 24 poll date.
The EC will then officially declare the poll date and issue related regulations and schedules in five days of the royal decree taking effect. The EC will meet parties on Wednesday to discuss spending caps on election campaigning.