New Thai government faces major test in first budget debate

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s parliament on Thursday began debate on a budget bill that is set to test the strength of a new civilian coalition government headed by a former military junta leader.

Opposition parties object to an increased allotment in the budget for central government spending, to be dispersed at the discretion of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The draft bill for 2020, which was approved by the cabinet last week, faces a vote in coming days that will gauge the strength of Prayuth’s coalition, which has a slim majority in the lower House of Representatives.

The government’s 16-party coalition has 249 seats compared with 243 seats in the opposition bloc. Several seats in the 500-member house are vacant.

If the draft bill is defeated at the end of the first reading, expected by Saturday, then the government will be hamstrung without funds and may need to either resign or dissolve parliament, according to the constitution.

If the bill is passed, it will still have to go through second and third readings, expected in early January, before being submitted for royal approval in late January.

The proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 is for 3.2 trillion baht ($105.54 billion), a 6% increase from 2019, drafts of the budget tabled in parliament on Thursday showed.

The government is operating on the 2019 budget until the official 2020 budget is approved.

The largest item is a central budget allocation of 518.77 billion baht ($17.11 billion), a 10% increase from 2019, which represents nearly a quarter of this year’s budget increase.

It is also significantly larger than the budget for the education ministry, which usually gets the largest amount among all 19 ministries.

Opposition parties say the ability of the prime minister to spend the central budget allocation without parliamentary approval gives the former army chief, in effect, unchecked powers, similar to those he wielded for five years as head of a military junta.

The government rejects the opposition criticism. Prayuth told parliament he would not spend the budget frivolously.

The Ministry of Defence, which has seen increasingly higher spending since the military seized power in 2014, was set to see a 2.7% increase in its budget in 2020.

The government also proposed a palace budget of 7.69 billion baht ($253.63 million) next year, a 13% rise in support of monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s state and personal affairs.

Editing by Robert Birsel