Thailand: New Government, Same Old Issues

As a new government takes shape, the issues that lie ahead for it are quite familiar.

Thailand: New Government, Same Old Issues
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

In his first major parliamentary outing as elected Prime Minister of Thailand, former junta chief and coup leader, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has laid out what Thais can expect from the first term of their new government. Still, with many familiar faces in the freshly-named cabinet and the premier’s fiery disposition on show, there’s little room for optimism.

Prayut’s agenda-setting address to the parliament late July had few surprises. Thailand’s economic woes, particularly slowing growth and an aging workforce, was, as expected, the area of focus. He outlined a push to improve the sluggish welfare system and expand upon measures introduced during junta rule. A welfare card program has previously rolled out to assist the elderly but will widen its net to include underprivileged children and pregnant women. The card program offers public transportation subsidies and other benefits in an effort to even out income inequality between the rural poor and middle class, urban-dwelling Thais.

Farmers, too, expect a boost. Greater support has been promised via training, and many of the poorest agricultural families could presumably be covered more extensively by the welfare push. Interestingly, recent moves to legalize marijuana — certainly the first of its kind in the region — is an area in which Thai farmers could potentially find a new market. With demand expected to skyrocket from the healthcare sector, and possibly eventually tourism, cannabis crop could be an alternative to traditional choices.

A soaring baht will be of major concern to the new government. Central bank responses are being closely watched by analysts and investors, but the impact is already being felt in the country’s huge tourism sector with operators warning of dwindling visitor numbers. The Bank of Thailand is already feeling the pressure to cut rates and paired with a worsening drought throughout the Mekong region threatening exports further, analysts say fiscal policy must move decisively.

The cabinet, which was finally named early July after weeks of slow deliberations, is ready to answer the call. Speaking in Tokyo, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana said “the government will consider packages of economic activities that will be suitable for the next coming months, depending on the situation.” Pointing to the US-China trade war, Uttama added that predictions of growth reaching up to 6 percent annually he made during the campaign period are unlikely to come quickly to fruition and instead will focus on structural reform with long-term goals. Working Thailand’s way out of the middle-income trap will remain his ministry’s overarching priority, he added.

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Elsewhere, the choice to keep Prawit Wongsuwan in cabinet as a deputy prime minister is a puzzling one. A former army official, Prawit shot to international notoriety last year over questionable ownership of watches worth thousands — despite a modest military paycheck. While he was cleared by the National Anti-Corruption Commission last December after saying the watches are all gifts, his continued political career casts serious doubts about Prayut’s promise to root out corruption in the civil service

Other questions about how former junta players will perform under even the lightest of democratic and parliamentary scrutiny linger. Prayut infamously takes criticism and tough questions poorly, frequently lashing out at media and young protestors. Now facing opposition figures in the parliament regularly his ability to perform under pressure should be closely watched. Longtime junta critic Pravit Rojanaphruk has already noted issues with the Prime Minister’s behavior in a commentary in a local media outlet. Vocal debates over the policy agenda, which saw the opposition criticize much of it for being unimplementable and doubting the government’s ability, saw Prayut crack. An emergency recess was at one point called after the leader left the chamber in a huff.

While few expected Prayut to dramatically reform to a democratic leader post-election, his inability to withstand criticism, let alone learn from it, will undermine his lofty goals of economic stability for all Thais. Ironically it’s this, rather than opposition chiding, which will see his policy platform perform flatly.