Korn on military spending but not electoral buying power

7 03 2011

For those who enjoyed the first part of Asia Provocateur’s interview with Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, the second installment is now available.It is a long interview, so PPT just highlights bits and pieces from Andrew Spooner’s blog.

On food security and prices and the challenge for the Democrat Party: “From my perspective the high cost of living is a big issue…. Actually, the people who are hurting more are the urban dwellers and consumers, who don’t have the benefits derived from higher food prices. That is problematic as it is also the Democrat Party’s support base. So it is a challenge for us.”

Korn adds that the government has “scaled back on our spending programmes, which is consistent with our plan to achieve budget balance in five years.” PPT wonder what impact the huge pre-election spending is having on the budget bottom line. Korn speaks about the “oil fund” saying that, when the interview was conducted it had a surplus of 27 billion baht. Estimates are now that it will be drained by April.

Korn goes on to mention the government’s Pracha Wiwat program, saying “… all of it is address the quality of life issues that have been raised as a reason for social division and to strengthen the grassroots economy…”. He also comments on social spending spurring demand. The unmentionable is influencing the election outcome.

Like Abhisit, Korn likes to claim: “We did something that wasn’t done before.” IOn this case he is referring to flood relief, where he says: “We wanted to ensure that everything was received by the individual recipients with no leakage along the way.” Maybe Korn has forgotten this. And what could be done about corruption when the Minister doesn’t know the figure for this huge program?

Referring to the reported level of investment in the Pracha Wiwat programme of 2 billion baht (US$65.6m) a year…

That’s totally wrong. It’s more. Well, that’s right for the first year anyway.

Well the Bangkok Post state that it is 2 billion baht.

Okay, okay. Roughly.

Spooner then asks this really neat question:

And I am referring to the level of Pracha Wiwat investment in this next question as it seems quite a surprising state of affairs to an outsider such as myself when set against payments in other areas. For example, when we consider the amount of money put aside to spend on Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda’s new cavalry unit in Khon Kaen, which costs 70 billion baht (US$3.3bn), equivalent to 35 years of the Pracha Wiwat welfare programme, and a military project that some commentators consider to be something of an unnecessary vanity project, I must wonder, and speaking very much as an outsider on this issue, but also having observed other grandiose spending, is military spending out of control in Thailand? And, given all the reforms and changes you are talking about, when are Thais going to be able to ensure they get the best value for money from their military? Setting 2 billion baht against the military spending seems very small.

Korn gets back to his comment above:

Pracha Wiwat is just a sliver of what we do in terms of welfare. Income guarantee for farmers is over 40 billion baht. Free education is another 30 to 40 billion baht. We pay 500 baht to elderly people who don’t have a pension that, again, is tens of billions of baht.

So that’s annually up to 150 billion baht plus tens of billions to the elderly. Korn gives these figures as a defense of the claim that welfare amounts to a sliver of what the military has been paid.

Korn then turns to the military part of the question. The Finance Minister states: “I have no idea about the Khon Kaen thing.” This would seem to imply that the military gets its piles of money and uses it with no oversight from the government.

He adds:

The less money we need to spend on the military the better…. But … of course we need to have a military, then they need to be properly equipped. And on that basis we need to be willing to spend money to ensure that we’re getting the best value from our military.

Yes, Minister, but how can you get “best value for money” if you have “no idea” what they are doing with their budget? And what of failed zeppelins, “lost” arms, GT 200s and so on?

Finally Spooner  asks about Map Ta Phut, environment and development. Korn essentially says on Map Ta Phut: “We solved it in a timely manner and in a very democratic manner…”. PPT isn’t at all sure the issue is “solved.”

Strikingly, Korn adds:: “The reason the country is spending quite a lot of money in helping Myanmar (Burma) develop, for example at the new port city of Tavoy, is because that is where our industrial growth is likely to be in the future and not within Thai borders.” While it is understood that this is Thai policy, it hasn’t been so clearly expressed. Move polluting and dangerous industries to other, neighboring countries. Charming idea.

It is a very useful interview and Korn seems pretty relaxed. We wish he’d been asked about elections and government spending.

Trying to fix an election, part II

12 02 2011

Jailing opponents, engaging in massive censorship, killing protesters, being backed by the military, judiciary and palace (that banned hundreds of politicians who would oppose the royalists), and getting an already rigged constitution fixed again seems not enough for the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government as it sets about trying to “prove” its legitimacy by way of the ballot box.

The Bangkok Post reports that the government has decided to “extend the subsidy on diesel until April to keep pump prices below 30 baht a litre, amid criticism from businesses that the move had no purpose other than increasing its popularity with voters.” That’s estimated to be at a cost to taxpayers of  13 billion baht.

Throw that not insubstantial sum in with all of the government’s other schemes such as the 9-10 billion on Pracha Wiwat giveaways that are also meant to increase popularity through throwing money at voters and the taxpayer is being saddled with a hefty bill for the Democrat Party’s need to appear legitimate.

Dr Somsak Vivatpanachart of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said: “It’s an obvious effort by the government that aims at political gains…”. Usually the Chamber is a big supporter of this government. Somsak added that “squandering the Oil Fund was tantamount to taking public money to promote waste and prodigality.”

Together with the cost of keeping this coalition together for another election and for seeking defections from the post-Thaksin Shinawatra parties, all of this spending means that we are probably looking at the most expensive election in Thailand’s history.

Abhisit’s gift to the Thai people

29 01 2011

You don’t need any Thai to get the meaning of this particular piece of state propaganda put out for the Democrat Party-led government.

The images clear convey the meaning. Here is Abhisit providing a gift – in the form of the Pracha Wiwat program – for the Thai people. Which people? That’s clear too. It is a “gift” to the farmers, taxi drivers, hawkers and the like who have been amongst the main supporters of the red shirt rebellion, and before that, the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra parties.

PPT reckons this is pretty rich. First, the “gift” is funded with taxpayers money, so Abhisit is using trick developed by the monarchy that gains the person claiming to be making the gift great merit.

Second, it is blatant “vote-buying” through “policy corruption.” It is about seeking to create an “obligation” that acts on the minds of voters. If that sounds familiar, it is because these were the charges directed at the Thaksin Thai Rak Thai Party when campaigning as so-called populists. On the one hand, the devoid of ideas Democrat Party continue to plagiarize Thaksin while hating him, but they do it in an even more clearly electoralist manner than even Thaksin dared. They do this because they are desperate to get even a few votes away from the pro-Thaksin regions where the Democrat Party is loathed. If readers have forgotten all the attacks on corruption and Thaksin’s populism, see this paper (a large PDF) and think about Abhisit.

Third, the clip shows something else about the Democrat Party that proves it can never be truly “populist”: look at how the policy-making process is portrayed. A bunch of suits with laptops and designer shoes march into a room, sit around with big shots and come up with the “gift.” They get nods of approval from the mainly Sino-Thai big shots. Abhisit and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, not to mention that the police chief (did PPT miss the military brass or were they deliberately left out?), are there nodding approval before unveiling the “gift.”

If readers dislike Thaksin’s populism, then they must condemn Abhisit and his ilk. There is, however, a difference between Abhisit and Thaksin, and PPT thinks it matters. In his first electoral incarnation, Thaksin came up policies as part of a platform he put to voters. They apparently approved. Abhisit, however, is dishing out loot before an election. This is not a party or prime minister that has ever received a mandate for this kind of policy. That strikes us as shabby, even grubby.

Further updated: Innovation missing in plagiarized policy making

28 12 2010

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij felt moved to write to the Bangkok Post to defend the Abhisiti Vejjajiva government’s Pracha Wiwat scheme as “not populist”! Readers will recall that PPT commented on this scheme and an avalanche of other pay increases, handouts and so on, when we asked what had happened to all of the academic and political critics of “populism.”

A bit of innovation and then a cuppa

There has now been some relatively muted criticism, and Korn is commenting on an editorial in the Bangkok Post that was published a couple of days after PPT’s post. It stated: “No one disputes the need to help the needy. But what is needed are long-term, sustainable strategies to close the country’s social and economic divide, not stopgap measures that smack of political expediency.” It pointed out that Pracha Wiwat alone impacts more than half of the population. The Post states:

One may be forgiven for feeling a sense of dejavu. Ten years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra swept to power under the Thai Rak Thai banner with promises such as a debt moratorium for farmers and low-interest microfinance programmes for the poor. During the Thaksin administration, Mr Abhisit and his finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, were vituperous critics of such schemes, labelling them as little more than well-marketed, populist programmes that traded off financial prudence for political pandering to special interest groups. The Democrat Party, then in opposition, also fiercely attacked the financing of such policies through state-owned banks as poor public governance by bypassing the parliamentary budget system.

Strange then to see Mr Abhisit and Mr Korn today tapping similar tactics and effectively putting old wine in a new bottle. It is hard to understand what has changed to make what was once populist, undemocratic and poor policies become sound development strategies today.

Korn’s response is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is in his definition of “populist policies” as “policies that are largely created by politicians, designed chiefly to win votes but are unsustainable and cause a heavy budgetary burden.” He rejects this account of his policies by referring to “process” that would also exempt Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai Party from claims that it was “populist.”

Oddly, though, his comments bear little relationship with his own definition of populist, when he says: “It is new and is designed to created a ”total government” policy-making process that overcomes the age-old problems of departmental and ministerial compartmental approach. Most public issues require the involvement of a number of government agencies. Traditionally, these agencies will work independently from each other, sometimes at cross-purposes and often using different sets of data and assumptions.”

He then says that the “prime minister conceived of the Pracha Wiwat process where, upon his command, all relevant agencies were brought under one roof, literally, to work until a credible proposal was found. The Pracha Wiwat process started with the government listening to the needs of the people, prioritising their needs and posing them as problems requiring solutions.”Apart from making Abhisit appear king-like in issuing commands, the process still sounds remarkably similar to that employed by TRT prior to its election and then when in government.

Korn adds: “The government then ‘invited’ around 80 officials and academics from 30 agencies to work full time on these problems.” PPT wonders if there is any significance to “invited” being in quotation marks – was it another semi-royal command? These 80 were “provided with full facilities at the Government Centre, Chaeng Watthana and were encouraged to talk directly with the target groups. The prime minister empowered them to think out of the box and to address these problems in a practical and sustainable manner.”

Korn then assures us: “So far, nothing ‘populist’ in this.” Perhaps not, but then this comment would also apply to TRT’s focus groups and surveys in the period when the party developed its policies. For PPT, Korn is simply dissembling or just demonstrating that he has no idea about the nature of TRT’s political innovations.

Then he makes what is for PPT a remarkable claim. He says that the  “civil servants, academics and other interested parties, suddenly given this freedom and power, found a level of creativity that surprised themselves and certainly surprised us.” Apart from sounding like David Cameron, he again shows little knowledge of the TRT innovations that made the party so popular. And, he wants us to see plagiarized processes that produce essentially plagiarized results as innovative.

PPT doesn’t doubt that some good policy might come of repackaging and reconsidering the TRT innovations. Nor do we doubt that there isn’t continuing need for good policy that addresses real needs. But to claim innovation and difference when there is none demonstrated is sounding like the marketing men at work rather than anything else. They are the ones who must sell faux innovation to voters and hope that they ignore guns, censorship, repression and government mendacity.

Update 1: Suthichai Yoon at The Nation is critical of the Pracha Wiwat policies for several reasons, including this yellow-tinged epithet: “Don’t ask me what happened to the ‘sufficiency economy’ policy that the Democrats claimed as one of their top priorities. Don’t ask why they were saying that populism under somebody else was bad because it created grassroots dependency on the powers-that-be, and that it could be so addictive that the withdrawal symptoms could be fatal.”

Update 2: Readers will be interested in the interview in The Nation with Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, “who previously advised former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Now, Sungsidh is chairman of Chandrakasem Rajabhat University’s PhD programme in good governance. Earlier this year, the academic was approached by Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij to help formulate measures that work for the grassroots population.”

Populism? Vote buying?

22 12 2010

This was the cartoon in the Bangkok Post today. PPT uses it to illustrate a point. Not just that the Democrat Party under Abhisit Vejjajiva has adopted the so-called populist policies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra; that point has been well made.

The issue we want raise is related to curious double standards. Double standards amongst the Thaksin critics, almost all of whom signed up with the People’s Alliance for Democracy to damn “populist policies” as “corruption” or a form of “vote-buying.” Where are those critics now?

Why does PPT ask? The Bangkok Post says that the government “has given the green light for a pay raise for tambon administrative organisation [TAO] executives and staff, as proposed by the Interior Ministry.” Sawai Boonma in the Bangkok Post points out: “The principal reason for the coming together of these activities [described below] at this time should not be hard to discern: the government is planning on calling a new election sometime next year and these programmes are advanced payments for votes. Pure and simple.”

Newin (r) seeking a bit of help from Banharn Silpa-Archa

The Ministry of Interior is controlled by the minions of Newin Chidchob, and he has seldom been averse to a bit of corruption, vote-buying and influence peddling. He’s been in more parties than anyone we can think of. Now he’s shacked up with Abhisit because he’s the only one able to deliver votes from the northeast.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the TAO raise, which the Democrat Party initially sniffed at, now says that it is”intended to narrow the gap between the salaries of TAO staff and those of municipality workers and provincial administrative organisations’ employees.” Those latter groups already got pay raises. The newly-announced raise is to cost 1.06 billion baht.

When Abhisit initially criticized the call for a raise, he was threatened with demonstrations and billboards criticizing the Democrat Party, and the pay rise was quickly back on the agenda and passed.

His Newin allies know that having the TAO leaders on side is important for their electoral chances whenever Abhisit decides a election should be held. TAO leaders have broad connections in their areas and are critical for organizing elections and getting locals out to vote.

This may not be simple vote-buying, but is is a critical part of arranging for an election that the government and its allies believe they will win.

Leaving aside the support of the army, the purge of provincial administrations, the censorship, the jailing and deaths of red shirts, the harassment of the red shirt leadership, the repression and so on – yes, put that all aside just for a moment – to win seats in the north and northeast, the government and its coalition partners will need local organizers. Newin has some, but they are pretty much localized to his fiefdom. TAO leaders will be critical, if they can get them on board. That may take more than a hefty salary rise, but that’s only a beginning.

The government has been on a new spending spree in recent days. The Bangkok Post stated that one critical scheme “is the Pracha Wiwat [ประชาวิวัฒน์] welfare scheme which is being marketed as a New Year’s gift for Thais. It is aimed at putting more than 30 billion baht into the pockets of poorer people who include motorcycle and taxi cab drivers, street vendors and farmers.” All well and good that these often ignored people, struggling to make a living, get some attention. Of course, it is no coincidence that these are exactly the people who supported the red shirts in Bangkok.

And this isn’t all, for “Pracha Wiwat follows hot on the heels of an unprecedented steep increase in the minimum wage, substantial pay rises for civil servants, MPs and senators, and the distribution of rice in bags bearing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s name to communities nationwide.” And let’s not forget the extension of “free bus, electricity and tap water for low-income earners.”

The Post observes that “It is very probable the prime minister will call a snap election as soon as he receives a sign that the schemes are working to attract support for the government coalition parties.”

Why isn’t there a huge outcry, lambasting the government? Sure, as Siam Voices points out, there has been some criticism, but it has been pretty quiet.

Sawai, cited above, is critical. He says that when it came to power, the government “extended a number of programmes that were initiated by previous governments and were labelled ‘populist’ by some ministers when they were in opposition.” What do they say now? Siam Voices cite Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij as “explaining” that “unlike the numerous populist schemes during the Thaksin era, the government’s programmes will be sustainable and reasonable.”

Thaksin’s schemes were at least, for the most part, part of electoral platforms rather than ad hoc measures. Even so, they attracted plenty of criticism. So where are the academics who attacked Thaksin’s “populism”? Where are the senators who did the same? Are they prepared to only reserve criticism for their political opponents and not for the government that, by hook or by crook (and military repression), they so want to see win an election. For them, this government is almost “royal”; it is above criticism.


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