Thai govt faces test as Parliament set to vote on first reading of Budget Bill

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaking at Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 25, 2019. The ruling coalition currently has a razor-thin majority in the Lower House. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - The Thai government is facing its first real test in Parliament as the Lower House convened on Thursday (Oct 17) for the first reading of the annual Budget Bill.

The ruling coalition comprising 17 parties commanding 250 seats currently has a razor-thin majority in the House , only seven more than the opposition.

Analysts expect the Bill to pass with a slim majority at the end of its current three-day session, warning that a new round of political conflict could erupt otherwise.

"This would not lead to a disruption to government operations. It will not be a 'government shutdown' like in the US, as the government can still use last fiscal year's Budget Bill to keep things moving forward temporarily until a new Bill is introduced," Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat University located just outside Bangkok, told The Straits Times.

"But in terms of politics, such failure could dampen both domestic and international confidence in the parliamentary system and this administration which could trigger a new round of political conflict," he added.

The proposed 3.2-trillion-baht (S$144 billion) Budget Bill is the biggest in the country's history, 200 billion baht more than last year's.

A huge chunk - 518 billion baht - has been set aside as discretionary spending.

"This huge central budget on one hand offers flexibility and convenience in spending, but on the other hand provides loopholes for corruption so extra caution should be exercised," said Dr Yuttaporn.

The education ministry again receives the single biggest allocation of 368 billion baht followed by the interior, finance, defence and transport ministries.

The defence budget continues to rise to 233 billion baht this year, a 2.7 per cent increase from last year.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha spent nearly two hours in Parliament outlining the Budget and his administration's economic policies, saying sluggish economic growth in the first half of this year would pick up in the second half.

He said domestic demand should bounce back following the government's stimulus measures and investments in infrastructure in line with global recovery.

Thailand's economy grew by only 2.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2019, the weakest growth in five years, due partly to the US-China trade war.

The opposition has hit back at Mr Prayut and the government, calling the Budget "ineffective" in solving the country's woes, especially economic problems.

"I'd like to ask the government to rewrite the Budget Bill and propose it again because this Bill is highly inappropriate and cannot tackle the country's currently critical economic problems at all," said Mr Sompong Amornvivat, opposition leader.

"The government's policy in giving out cash is also thoughtless. This would hardly improve the efficiency of production. It's just a superficial solution to the problem," he added, referring to the government's move to hand out cash cards to low-income earners and domestic travellers.

Before the intense debate on the Budget Bill began, the House of Representatives on Thursday also passed an executive decree on the transfer of two army units to the King.

The measure passed by 374-70 votes, with the progressive Future Forward Party being the only one voting against the decree.

It was an unprecedented for any political party to vote against a procedure related to royal affairs.

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