Eyes turn to the Upper House

Eyes turn to the Upper House

ABOUT POLITICS: Experts are wondering about what kind of Senate the country will have when new senators are elected | Pheu Thai says the digital wallet handout is good to go later this year, but where the 500 billion baht will come from is still not known

Chaithawat: Building MFP strongholds
Chaithawat: Building MFP strongholds

The question on most pundits’ lips is what measures will be put in place to keep the forthcoming Senate poll from winding up like another general election.

The poll result expected in July will mark the second time a fully elected Senate is established.

If a lesson can be learned from the first Senate election back in 1997, the new group of senators will need to be detached from politics. However, elections and political affiliations are part and parcel, and to deny one of the other may only be wishful thinking, according to observers.

The observers argued that the Senate has the duty to be a “minder” in a bicameral parliament where only people’s representatives, or MPs, are directly elected to office.

Upper House members, on the other hand, have no business duplicating the work of MPs. Their job is to apply their respective expertise to scrutinising legislation.

Elections, however, are not conducive to selecting specific experts to sit in the chamber. To set the proportions of people from specialised fields, such as law and political science, a selection method works better for picking senators, according to the observers.

The 1997 Senate election which produced 200 members, while having been hailed as the most democratic way to get Upper House occupants, was not without a critical flaw.

The election was chided widely as a “bedfellow” contest through which several spouses or relatives of sitting MPs at the time won Senate seats, thanks to the vast support they capitalised on in constituencies dominated by their families.

In the 1997 election, senators represented the provinces where local politicians and political scions exerted their dominance. Even though the senators were barred from having connections to political parties, the parliament witnessed some close family members securing seats on either side of the chambers.

The Senate was slammed as having come under the influence of politicians and political parties through family ties with MPs. Senators’ independence was thrown out of the window, according to the observers.

Subsequent batches of senators were appointed, mostly by selectors entrusted with the job either via a coup d’etat or replacement constitutions.

Fast-forward to the present. The incumbent senators, hand-picked by the now-defunct coup-maker, the National Council for Peace and Order, will end their tenure in early May, drawing to a close the last vestige of the conservative camp’s power after being accused of cementing the NCPO’s grip on the previous government.

Critics had serious doubts about reverting to a wholly elected Senate, fearing a repeat of the flawed system that undermined the 1997 poll for the upper chamber and shattered the senators’ supposed impartiality in executing their legislative duties.

This time around, the Senate’s independence is again being prioritised. However, it has been pointed out that elections, in whatever shape or form in Thailand, cannot escape the deep-rooted patronage that binds voters to politicians or parties they credit with bringing modern developments to their constituencies.

For the July Senate election, the same rules that were enforced in 1997 have been dusted off, such as a ban on vote canvassing or any poll campaigns.

The critics said with no campaigning, Senate candidates will be left to rely on knocking on doors to reach out to voters. This might encourage some candidates running in unfamiliar territory to seek secret support from local politicians to heighten their chances of winning.

However, the observers said the main opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), led by Chaithawat Tulathon, is taking a different approach by building its own strongholds in the provinces from the ground up.

The party has regularly visited the provinces and fielded mostly young faces in tambon administrative organisation and provincial administration organisation elections. Together, the two organisations form solid layers of political backing for MPs. In other words, if a political party can win over the hearts and minds of voters in the two grassroots polls, they are on course to capture substantial support for the general election.

The MFP’s choice of young faces to contest local polls connects well with voters as they promise to deliver a breath of fresh air to the otherwise predictable and conservative politics controlled by powerful families. Young poll candidates are able to strengthen their foothold in politics on account of the mobile connectivity through which messages are directly piped to voters’ phones.

According to observers, if the July Senate election candidates fit the bill — by being fresh or familiar faces who have shown themselves to be able and willing to break the status quo and embrace changes — they might be favourably positioned to claim Senate seats.

Once in the Senate, they are bound to be on the same wavelength as the MFP MPs and the party is bound to seek an alliance across the chamber.

It would be a total departure from the current situation where the incumbent, NCPO-selected senators are not seeing eye-to-eye with the MFP.

A question of funding

The digital wallet handout policy appears to be back on track after a pause of about two months to allow a working panel to gather opinions and recommendations from various stakeholders and concerned parties.

Julapun: Final quarter launch

The digital wallet policy committee chaired by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is scheduled to meet on April 10 to finalise details before submitting the scheme to the cabinet for approval.

Deputy Finance Minister Julapun Amornvivat insisted this week that the ruling Pheu Thai Party’s flagship policy is good to go and is set for launch in the final quarter of this year.

Originally expected to debut in February, the launch was rescheduled for May in light of criticism and concerns from several agencies including the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

The scheme will distribute funds via digital wallets to up to 50 million people aged 16 and older, with each receiving 10,000 baht.

While Mr Julapun gave his assurance that the giveaway criteria remain largely unchanged, he stopped short of discussing the most controversial aspect of the policy: the source of the approximately 500 billion baht needed to fund the scheme.

The government plans to borrow up to 500 billion baht to fund the scheme which calls into question its legality.

Not only does the borrowing plan go against Pheu Thai’s election campaign promise that it will not resort to taking out loans, but obtaining the massive loan that would augment an already staggering public debt may also violate the 2018 State Fiscal and Financial Discipline Act.

There are three possible funding sources: a borrowing bill, the national budget, and using a combination of loans and the budget, according to Lawaron Saengsanit, permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry.

He said this week that the details should be made clearer on April 10 and the prime minister wants the project details to go before the cabinet by the end of next month.

With the policy now under the watchful eye of critics — the NACC in particular — political watchers reckon the Pheu Thai-led government will scale down the scheme and back away from the borrowing plan.

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, told the Bangkok Post that due to pressure and criticism, the ruling party is expected to revise its approach to the scheme.

“I believe the government won’t push for the loan bill because it risks breaking fiscal discipline and attracting more criticism. It will try to fund the policy through the annual budget and use the Pao Tang mobile application to deflect criticism,” he said.

However, the fate of the digital wallet policy rests solely with paroled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alleged de facto leader of Pheu Thai, according to Mr Stithorn.

“If Thaksin simply says it is not the right time for the project’s implementation, the remark is more than enough to give the prime minister an excuse to drop the policy.

“But if Thaksin and the government feel they can’t back down without losing face, I believe they will revise the scheme and further narrow the target groups,” he said.

The Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin are in need of the digital wallet scheme to shore up the party’s approval rating, said the analyst. The popularity of the ruling party, Mr Srettha and Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra has declined over the past seven months.

The results of a recent National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) opinion poll are quite alarming, according to several observers.

Chief adviser to the Move Forward Party (MFP) Pita Limjaroenrat retains a comfortable lead over Mr Srettha and Ms Paetongtarn whose combined popularity was only 23.75%, compared with 42.75% enjoyed by Mr Pita.

The survey also saw the MFP’s approval rating rise to 48.45%, up from 44.05% in the previous survey, while Pheu Thai’s rating dropped to 22.10%, compared with 24.05% in the December survey.

Mr Stithorn said the public can and should expect to see more action from Thaksin who cannot afford to keep a low profile. The more action he takes the sooner the people will get used to having him around the Thai political scene, according to the analyst.

Thaksin’s public appearance last Sunday in Bangkok’s Silom area, a week after a three-day visit to his home province of Chiang Mai, is also seen as a way for the former premier to test the waters.

The ex-prime minister received a warm welcome, rather than being booed and jeered. His visit to the Pheu Thai Party’s headquarters this week where he met and talked with MPs was also smooth and didn’t cause much of a stir.

For those who do not like Thaksin, there is not much they can do until he makes a mistake, according to Mr Stithorn.

Thaksin himself appears indifferent to the opinions of his critics.

“Now I’m back — and if anyone doesn’t like me, they can live their own life and I will live mine [without disturbing each other],” said the ex-premier during his recent visit to Chiang Mai.

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