How can the charter writers curb populist policies?

opinion January 29, 2015 01:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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The charter drafters are looking for ways to put an end to populist policies among politicians. That's an uphill task. Some may even say it's Mission Impossible.

In other words, politicians won’t give up populism voluntarily – for a very simple reason: They need votes for the next election and populist policies, using taxpayers’ money to bolster their chances of getting re-elected, are the only sure way to achieve that.
But populist policies are wasteful, unproductive and addictive – and dangerously corruption-prone. The rice-pledging scheme alone recorded a whopping loss of Bt690 trillion. The LPG subsidy ran up Bt140 trillion, pushing the total subsidies for both diesel and LPG up to Bt520 trillion.
A group of academics at the Thai Future Studies Institute has come up with some specific proposals to apply curbs on such populist spending:
1. Clearly specify and limit budget for populist policies. One way to put a cap on populist spending is to make it compulsory that it cannot exceed the annual national investment budget.
2. Cut or reduce populist spending that qualifies for “3 highs”: High fiscal burden, high market distortion and high budget per head.
3. Apply the 2/98 formula to all populist policies that exceed Bt1 billion spending. That means allocating 2 per cent of he budget to create an effective monitoring system of the policies from Day One.
The proposal says that from 2010-2014, a total of Bt2 trillion was allocated for populist policies of all shades and colours. Most of the projects that fell into this category were open-ended and therefore could not be reined in by budgetary control measures. The “first car” project, for example, didn’t have a limit to the number of cars that came under the scheme to offer special discounts to first-time car buyers.
Compared to the annual investment budget, populist policies grew faster during the same period: 2.4 times against 4.6 times. The reason is easy to comprehend: Populism produces almost instant results – and votes – while long-term investment projects take time to materialise and are much less “sexy” politically.
But the underlying problem is that if this trend continues, the country’s national development will lag behind neighbours such as Vietnam and Malaysia. Thailand’s investment budget was 12 per cent of the total budget while Vietnam hit 21 per cent and Malaysia’s was 16 per cent.
Accountability is also a key condition if runaway populism is to be contained at a reasonable level. Effective mechanisms must be designed and put in place to ensure that if a populist policy fails to meet the set target, responsible parties must be pinpointed and appropriate punitive measures meted out. No such practice has been carried out in the long history of political populism, and unless due punishment is handed down, politicians will not feel obliged to live by the rules of the game.
The public must have full access to information about all the schemes that fall under the populist category. The relevant “freedom of information” legislation must be updated and amended to ensure that the people are thoroughly and consistently informed of the latest developments in all the populist projects.
Perhaps more important is the creation of grass-roots awareness of the dangers of politicians exploiting local vulnerabilities by dumping “freebies” on villagers to the point that a sense of dependence on political largesse has taken root, undermining any hope of developing genuine democracy in the country.
Unless the constitution drafting committee can design some concrete provisions that offer practical results, Thai politics will continue to be dominated by a handful of opportunists bent on spending public money to get themselves elected to exploit the weak and vulnerable over and over again.