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Backing for move to curb populism

Scholars call for public debates to educate voters

THE JUNTA'S attempt to restrict the use of populist policies to woo voters has won support from academics and politicians from parties influenced by the practice - while scholars are suggesting public debates during election campaigns to educate voters about the pros and cons of such tactics before they go to the ballots.

Extensive populism was first adopted by Thaksin Shinawatra when his Thai Rak Thai Party contested an election for the first time in 2001. Its populist policies helped his party win the election and for him to become prime minister.

Voters should be educated about the policies in order to improve their judgement for casting ballots, said Satithorn Thananithichote, a researcher at King Prajadhipok's Institute. Article 35 of the 2014 provisional charter stipulates 10 frameworks for a new constitution. This includes creation of an "efficient mechanism for restructuring and driving an economic and social system for inclusive and sustainable growth and preventing populist administration that may damage the national economic system and the public in the long run".

Satithorn suggested that the Election Commission (EC) and other independent organisations give out relevant information about the policies put forward during an election campaign - for example the impact they would have on the state budget - so that people have more complete understanding regarding the implications and wider impacts of such policies.

Attasit Pankaew, a lecturer in political science at Thammasat University, added that political parties should be engaged in public debate.

"Political parties can criticise each other's policies while defending and promoting their own. This way, people would learn to use their judgement and think critically, and the people's opinions would be reflected in the general election," he said.

Praise and criticism

Earlier, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) discussed with the EC whether the commission should be authorised to screen the policies of parties in election campaigns. For Pheu Thai, the regulation by any organisation to curb populist policies could be problematic - no matter if the policies were screened before or after an election. Former Pheu Thai MP Udomdej Rattanasatien said pre-election screening would interfere with a political party's right to promote its policies to the people.

He explained there were many measures to analyse policies that could lead to contrasting conclusions; this meant the regulatory panel might disapprove of a policy that a political party thought was good for the country.

"If the policies were judged after the election, would this mean that the party that won the election could be banned along with its members? If so, would the regulatory panel merely be used as a political tool to go after certain political factions?" he said.

A senior Chart Thai Pattana Party member, who asked not to be named, said it was a matter of perspective whether a social policy be viewed as "populist" or not.

He then asked: "Is it better to have the whole population or a [smaller] group of people decide which policies are good and which are not? Just because ordinary people don't know about macroeconomics doesn't mean they are not good judges."

The Democrat Party, however, supported restraining populist policies.

"We must create societal prosperity based on reality," said Wiratana Kalayasiri, head of the Democrats' legal team, giving the reason for his support for policy regulation.

He said regulatory responsibility should be given to independent organisations to screen populist policies.

Democrat Party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said the EC needed to conduct more in-depth regulation on key issues such as conformity to constitutional rules of law, short- and long-term effects on the state budget, and support for the free market mechanism and competition.The success of political parties linked, or supposedly linked, to Thaksin - Thai Rak Thai, People's Power and Pheu Thai - was largely attributed to their populist policies, most notably the Bt30 healthcare plan, the village funds, and a four-year debt moratorium for farmers.

Those policies made the parties very popular among the rural poor, which resulted in them winning all general elections since 2001.

However, their populist policies were criticised by some for allegedly having negative long-term effects on government budgets and the economy.

The rice-pledging scheme, at the forefront of Pheu Thai's populist policies that helped it win the 2011 general election, was touted by its critics as a failure, creating severe public debts and allegedly leading to corruption.

The NACC commissioners found that the scheme under the Yingluck Shinawatra government caused a loss of Bt500 billion. This was mainly because the government bought rice at 40 per cent above the market price.

They claimed that significant amounts of rice stored in warehouses had grown rotten or were stolen. Yingluck's caretaker government owed Bt90 billion to farmers at the time it was ousted by the military in May.

Despite the losses and allegations, a recent poll by the National Institute for Development Administration revealed that 56 per cent of respondents wanted the National Council for Peace and Order to continue the rice scheme, but with some adjustments."The policy helped farmers sell rice at a good price. Without the policy, we had to sell it to rice millers at low prices because they had more negotiating power. Maybe they need better regulation to prevent corruption, but overall it's a good policy," said Samer Poonsarikij, a rice farmer in Phichit province.

Chavalit Wichayasuthi, a former Pheu Thai MP, admitted the party's policies had room for improvement, including on rice-pledging, but said it was a good way to help farmers.

More decentralisation

Another solution to help prevent politicians from exploiting voters by using populist policies could be decentralisation of power.

People vote for populist policies because they rely hugely on the government for support, Attasit said.

"We can give more executive and policy-making power to the local administration bodies, hence party tactics of using populist policies to gain votes become less effective - because local problems can be solved locally."


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