Making big waves

Making big waves

Srettha Thavisin
Srettha Thavisin

Srettha Thavisin is setting out to whip up an "economic tsunami" and ride it to election victory with a promise of kicking the pandemic-battered economy into high gear.

When he signed on as a member of the Pheu Thai Party before going on to be named one of its three prime ministerial candidates, he was expected to bring his economic acumen to the table.

Now, the former president and chief executive of the Sansiri real estate empire has enthused voters with the controversial 10,000-baht digital wallet policy to spur the economy with an ambitious promise of making Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grow by 5% every year throughout the party's four-year term in government, if it gets its way.

First, Pheu Thai must win the next election and lead the next coalition government or rule the administration solo.

In an exclusive interview with Bangkok Post, he set the record straight over the one-off digital wallet scheme -- in which 10,000 baht will be spent within six months at shops within a 4-kilometre radius of where people live.

Critics say it is an underhand method to realise Pheu Thai's goal of clinching a landslide victory in the May 14 polls.

Mr Srettha also explained the party's criteria in forming the next government and its position on the sensitive issue of Section 112, otherwise known as the lese majeste law.

Mr Srettha, who also advises Paetongtarn Shinawatra, head of the "Pheu Thai Family," says the party will go "all the way" with the digital wallet scheme and other policies if it takes power.

The wallet scheme, earmarked for launch by Jan 1 next year, will not rely on a loan. It will play a part in shifting the economy into high gear and achieving the GPD growth it has targeted.

Mr Srettha, Pheu Thai's No.2 prime ministerial candidate after Ms Paetongtarn, and before the No.3 candidate, Chaikasem Nitisiri, says the digital wallet policy, estimated to cost 560 billion baht, has been thoroughly vetted by the party's economic team.

Economic tsunami

A large budget needs to be pumped into the system and the money has to be distributed nationwide and fast to trigger an economic force big enough to not only revive but stimulate growth effectively, he says.

In his view, rolling out cash relief little by little to specific groups of people, as the current government has done, has failed to kick-start the economy, deep in the doldrums after three years of the pandemic.

The economy is expanding at 2.3% a year, the lowest growth among many Asean countries despite the entire region having been wrecked by the pandemic all the same, he said.

"We want to create an economic tsunami with the 560 billion baht to be injected (via the digital wallet scheme) over six months.

"It will give the impetus to drive value chains and rev up GDP growth to at least 5% per year," he said.

Once the economy is revived, more jobs will be generated and purchasing power will jump significantly, which heightens demand for production where raw materials will be bought and overall economic activities revitalised.

Mr Srettha said an enormous cash flow will rush through the veins of the economy. In the end, the government will reap healthy returns in the form of an augmented income tax, value-added-tax and other tax imposts.

The condition that digital wallet spending takes place within a 4-kilometre radius of a recipient's home is meant to spread the stimulus cash out to small local businesses rather than have it concentrated in large department stores.

Businesses, regardless of size and location, will have an equal chance of benefiting from the stimulus, he added.

Fiscal discipline intact

Of the budget slated to finance the scheme, 260 billion baht will come from next year's expenditure budget, which has yet to be approved. It will be designed to cater to Pheu Thai's policies.

Another 160 billion baht will be tapped from an expected increase in VAT and corporate tax, made possible by a lift in purchasing power.

The rest of the fund will be drawn from the central budget, an emergency fund kept by the PM's Office and the Finance Ministry.

"I've been a businessman for more than 30 years. I have sound knowledge of accounting practice.

"There's no way we'll formulate a policy that undermines fiscal discipline. The 560 billion baht needed to move the economy forward is perfectly accountable," he said.

Unrelated to cryptocurrency

He said the wallet programme has nothing to do with tapping cryptocurrency, as some critics have alleged.

It is normal tender money that is spent through a digital wallet controlled by blockchain technology to ensure spending meets a set policy objective. It can't be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes or gamble, and the money is not transferrable.

"I don't see how some people in the know should be so wary of the policy to such an extent they would try to mislead by claiming it was a cryptocurrency handout," he said.

The Pheu Thai Party did not produce the policy with the aim of buying votes. Proof of this is that the scheme will distribute the money to people 16 years of age and over, instead of from the age of 18 -- which is the legal voting age.

No secret deal

Turning to the subject of ideal "suitors" to form the next government with, Mr Srettha said he has never met Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is concurrently chief adviser of the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, or Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, also leader of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

Pheu Thai denies entering a secret deal with the PPRP in which the two parties will set up the next government together.

He concedes it would be awkward to talk to people who "held us at gunpoint" eight years ago.

He was referring to the military coup staged by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which toppled the Pheu Thai-led administration in May 2014. Gen Prayut led the NCPO.

Mr Srettha said although Gen Prawit tried to distance himself from the coup, there is no denying he was complicit in the act.

However, Mr Srettha insisted he has no business talking to anyone about the prospect of a government formation. "This is not the time," he said.

The issue will be discussed when the result of the election is announced.

If Pheu Thai manages to capture at least 310 of the 500 MP seats, coalition-building talks might not be necessary. On the other hand, if the party pulls in 200 House seats, it will be a different story.

But if the Pheu Thai can pick up 376 MP seats, a majority of the two Houses, it will comfortably run a single-party government.

"We want to be a single-party government.

"There remain crucial issues beyond economic stimulation that we feel we should address, concerning culture, international relations and education," he added.

No knack as lawmaker

Mr Srettha said he did not apply to be an MP candidate because he has no knack for legislative duty. He is adept only in managerial roles.

If he could be prime minister, he would not dodge answering queries in parliament, except when he is away on official trips.

He believes the next prime minister will be someone from Pheu Thai as most voters are keen for a change after eight years under the current administration.

The party's main policies will be to rewrite and democratise the constitution and do away with contentious issues such as the selection of senators, the current batch of whom were hand-picked by the NCPO and accused of serving the political interests of the government.

Improving 112 law

On amending Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, Mr Srettha said the party is looking to rectify the law to prevent it being used as a tool to incriminate opponents in politics, which is damaging to all parties and every pillar institution of the country.

A special unit might be up and running to file legal action against lese majeste offenders. It must also be considered whether the law currently metes out too harsh a punishment.

He noted the perception of how the law is being handled and enforced transcends generations. But it was important to improve the law so people, young and old, can coexist harmoniously.

"It's not that we cater only to young people. We will never forget the older generations who may see things differently. We must reach out and listen to all sections of society," he said.

That is reflected in Pheu Thai's campaign policies which are designed to be inter-generational. A good leader must be able to blend together people of different generations, Mr Srettha said.

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