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31 May 2013
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Academics rail against populist rule

Yingluck policies worse than Thaksin’s, critics say

The second generation of the government’s populist policies has become a political tool to accumulate power, academics claim.

The view was offered yesterday by leading academics at a seminar entitled “Rethinking Populist Policy: From Thaksin to Yingluck”, organised by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) in Bangkok yesterday.

TDRI president Somkiat Tangkitvanich said the second generation of populist policies championed by the Yingluck Shinawatra government generate fewer public benefits compared to the firstgeneration policies from the era of the now defunct-Thai Rak Thai government.

For example, the Thaksin Shinawatra administration’s 30-baht universal healthcare scheme and the One Tambon One Product (Otop) entrepreneurship programme benefited the majority of the people and assisted social development, he said.

But the current populist policies, such as the first-car tax rebate scheme or the controversial rice pledging scheme, only serve the interests of specific groups,Mr Somkiat said.

The rice pledging scheme distorts market fundamentals and causes substantial economic losses, he said.

He added that developing a reliable mass transit system is what the country needs as opposed to the first-time car tax rebate scheme, which increases household debt.

Mr Somkiat said the ongoing populist policies are not suitable for sustainable socio-economic development as they only provide short-term solutions to address public needs, but fail to provide long-term answers.

The government should adopt strict fiscal policies to control public spending,similar to the austerity measures implemented by many European governments,otherwise private debt will skyrocket and become a burden for the public.

However, Mr Somkiat said he disagrees with the idea of terminating all populist policies, saying they should instead be analysed on a case-by-case basis.

It is likely that populist policies will continue to exist as political parties consider them an instrument to shore up public support, he said.

Independent academic Nidhi Eoseewong said stark social inequalities and a manufacturing-based society are the root causes of populist policies.

Populist policies have the potential to enhance income redistribution and product acquisition, he said, adding that the government has to take full responsibility for implementing them.

The 300-baht minimum daily wage policy is an example of an income redistribution scheme, but certain groups reject it because they lose benefits in the process, he said.

Mr Nidhi said, however, that populist policies can also be a foundation for a fascist political system if the government ploughs ahead with them regardless of the problems that may arise.

Ammar Siamwalla, a well-known economist and TDRI scholar, said populist policies cater to public interests rather than contributing to income redistribution.

They create a “cheap quality” political system with the government adopting specific measures to satisfy a public which is only interested in wealth or objects of their desires, he said.

Mr Ammar said the current rice pledging scheme distorts the market system because it creates profits for select groups.

He asked whether the government will hold itself responsible for losses of up to 200 billion baht generated by the scheme.

The rice industry creates huge revenues through exports, and lower-level rice farmers should reap the benefits of the scheme. But it is the wealthy farmers who have been the ones who have benefited the most, he said.

Regarding the wage hike policy, Mr Ammar said it helps the country in developing efficiency in terms of skilled labour and increasing its competitiveness on the global stage.

Kasian Tejapira, associate professor of the faculty of political science at Thammasat University, said the populist political system is the root cause of populist policies, and the policies themselves are not the problem.

Non-majoritarian institutions contribute to the creation of populist policies since they serve their needs and increase their power, he said.

Besides offering no checks and balances, a populist political system restricts pluralism, which supports public discussion in coherently determining policies that best serve the public interest,Assoc Prof Kasian said.
First published in Bangkok Post, 31 May 2013