For Prayut, the growing poverty level remains his greatest weakness

The Government House runs a public relations account on Twitter — usually almost entirely ignored, each tweet garnering retweet numbers in the low single digits. But finally, the account managed to gain the attention of netizens with a tweet on October 9th.

At first glance, it appeared to be yet another piece of innocent feel-good government messaging. “A woman from Buriram cried in a supermarket after using the state welfare card and receiving five hundred baht to use. She said that she did not even have a single baht and this money would help prolong her life.”

Attached were four pictures of her crying with a basket of canned fish and other basic goods. 

It was a revealing tweet, and the torrent of criticism showed that netizens know it. The intention was to promote the state welfare card, a signature policy of the Prayut government, but how was the fact that an old lady was so poor that she would cry upon receiving five hundred baht a cause for celebration? 

The Achilles’ heel of this government has always been economic underperformance. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, not all was well with the economy.

According to a World Bank report, before the pandemic, Thailand’s poverty rate increased twice under military rule: in 2016 and 2018. This occurred in all regions and had no single cause, being driven by a combination of factors such as low wage growth and declining market incomes.

In the past few decades, the increase in poverty in Thailand had only occurred during times of financial crisis, so the fact that this phenomenon occurred in normal times is certainly an indictment of the government’s economic policies.

In addition, inequality remains a significant issue.

Credit Suisse has previously reported that Thailand was the world’s most unequal nation. But this notion is debatable, after all, Thailand’s Gini coefficient is certainly not the worst in the world. Yet it is certain that even modest economic growth, sluggish compared to regional peers, has hardly been felt by the poor. 

But let us leave aside, for a moment, the official reports and statistics. Let’s talk about public feeling. This public perception matters greatly. People know there is deep economic inequality and that it is becoming more difficult to make ends meet.

Things may even now be so bad, with the pandemic’s economic downturn, that five hundred baht can make someone cry in joy. 

If nothing else, the framing of that five hundred baht revealed two competing worldviews on poverty which reveals why there is such deep dissatisfaction with the government’s economic performance. 

Where progressives speak of a decent quality of life and economic mobility as rights, the Prayut government is framing economic assistance as gifts that allow the chronically poor to sustain themselves. Where citizens are demanding greater economic dignity, the government is demanding gratitude.

Survey data of the 2011 general election has found that when party labels are taken off, voters in the northeast actually prefer the Democrat Party’s policies — a serial under-performer in that region — over Pheu Thai’s. Yet when party labels are attached back, Pheu Thai still wins overwhelmingly. Why is this the case?

One argument that has been suggested by political science professor Allen Hicken is that where the Democrat Party framed policies as benefits from above with the implicit expectation of gratitude, Pheu Thai spoke the language of rights and economic justice. Despite the fact that by 2011 both parties had delivered on so-called “populist” policies, Pheu Thai had in the eyes of many voters more credibility and proved better able to connect with the electorate.

The same dynamics are at play here. Instead of showcasing the strengths of the state welfare card program, the government demonstrated in a single tweet its elitist ideology and revealed how out of touch it is with ordinary citizens. 

In fairness, the World Bank report noted that public assistance, including the government’s welfare card program, has indeed played a key role in ensuring that more households did not fall into poverty. But in the face of the current economic downturn, such assistance is hardly enough and only compounds the sense of failure. 

Having to provide economic assistance to an increasing number of people below the poverty line is a mark of shame, not pride. Bragging about it borders on shamelessness. 

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Such was the resonance of Ronald Reagan’s classic line from the 1980 presidential debate that to this day, American politicians both left and right have continued to deploy it. 

It is no less crucial a question in Thailand and it is losing terrain for the government. Amid all the other problems facing this government, an underestimated weakness is the fact that it cannot pivot to bread and butter issues due to failure both of substance and style. 

While campaigning in Bangkok in the lead-up to the 2019 general election, Suthep Thaugsuban had admitted as much. “The prime minister is a soldier and he does not know everything,” he said, and he noted that improving standards of living for ordinary people had not been the government’s strong suit. 

If even as big a cheerleader of this government as Suthep knows it, who doesn’t?

Former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak went as far as to declare in 2017 that within the next year the government would eradicate poverty from Thailand. It was an ambitious promise, to put it mildly. 

That this government is reduced to boasting, three years later, that it can provide five hundred baht to the elderly so they can buy canned fish shows exactly why poverty remains Prayut’s greatest weakness. 

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