By any measure, the upcoming election is the weirdest in Thai political history.
A month before the planned February 2 polling day, the ruling Pheu Thai Party was the first to alert people, putting up posters and launching its campaign with a rally at Muang Thong Thani. The party had been too busy handling a series of political bombs to begin its marketing earlier.
A day after posters were first sighted on Bang Na-Trat Road, the Democrats – Thailand’s oldest political party– responded with its own banners, calling on people not to vote.
Then came the bloody clash between pro- and anti-election groups on Sunday, when some 2 million people were scheduled to take part in early voting. This prompted the Election Commission to reiterate its long-standing proposal that the election be postponed. (Today should bring news of whether the February 2 vote will go ahead, after the first meeting between the EC and the caretaker government.)
For a month now, voters have been in the dark over whether the February 2 poll will go ahead.
Yet, for the past two weeks, small political parties have been selling their messages on TV and radio. Largely ignored by the media, their campaigns only confirm that Thailand will continue living under the evils of populism with or without the election on February 2 and with or without the “Thaksin regime”.
No 52 on the party list is Thai Rak Tham, which has promised free university study, plus wireless Internet for all villages. It’s hardly thrilling stuff, merely raising the period of free education from 12 to 16 years.
The Khon Kho Plot Ni Party’s campaign looks more enticing. The “Debt Forgiveness” party (No 31) is living up to its name, with a promise to scrap all debts of up to Bt500,000 for all Thais. If elected, it will buy the debts and clear them within 48 hours. It has also vowed to scrap a financial act that limits money printing, saying that the law restricts the volume of banknotes in circulation and forces the government to borrow and run a budget deficit.
Khon Kho Plot Ni is convinced that without debt, Thai citizens and the country would prosper.
More exciting still are the promises being made by The Voice of People Party, No 31. It plans to roll out a high-speed-rail network covering the whole country. Unlike Pheu Thai’s similar plan, which requires massive borrowing, international companies would bid for contracts under a build-operate-transfer scheme, eliminating the need for public spending. Its other thrilling campaign promise is to have private companies build solar power plants in all villages, to guarantee electricity supply reaches the country’s remotest corners.
Thai Rak Tham’s campaign should appeal to mobile phone companies, while banks will likely be cheering on the Khon Kho Plot Ni Party. And the Voice of People will surely be the darling of rural residents.
However, closer examination reveals big flaws in all these campaigns.
Free wireless Internet sounds good, but how many villagers can afford smartphones or computers to make use of it?
Khon Kho Plot Ni’s debt eradication ignores the fact that most people will find a reason to borrow in the hope of improving their lives in the short term, though usually only creating more long-term problems. Without a policy to stop new borrowing, the policy is unsustainable.
The Voice of People also forgets to mention how high fares would be on its privately funded high-speed trains. It also fails to mention the running costs of its solar power plants and who would shoulder the burden.
It all brings to mind Pheu Thai’s rice-pledge scheme, with its massive loopholes for corruption, as well as the Democrats’ dust-free roads project, which required huge sums during the project period then more for maintenance.
These campaigns are a million miles away from being sustainable. It explains why critics complain that the small parties have emerged merely as part of a bid to validate the election and without any intention of gaining power. Yet, all the campaigns (minus the debt forgiveness) contain some intrinsic value which could be realised if carefully implemented.
It would be great if Thailand could be powered by solar energy alone. If we could afford that, it would make this country the greenest in the world. Indeed, if we scrapped the diesel excise tax waiver of Bt5 a litre – representing a monthly subsidy of Bt7.5 billion – we could have had several solar farms by now.
And I do believe that the big parties will pick up many of these ideas, presumably for the next election, whenever that is held. And I do know that many voters will love the resulting campaigns. After all, they didn’t hate the first-car-buyer or tax-deductible fund-related schemes.
Over-ambitious campaign promises will only disappear when enough of us realise the true meaning of sustainability. I doubt that will happen by the time we next visit the ballot box.