MASS TRANSIT: All systems go, PM tells Bangkok

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Cash will be found to expand capital’s transport system, says a victorious Thaksin

Fresh from a sweeping re-election victory, the emerging Thaksin II government will reward Bangkok voters with a promise to complete the expansion of the seven mass-transit-system routes in the capital.

The six-year expansion totals 248 kilometres and would cost Bt521 billion.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shina-watra yesterday met Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit and Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak to discuss Bangkok’s mass-transit system, which is part of the government’s plan to invest Bt1.5 trillion-Bt2 trillion on upgrading the country’s physical-infrastructure projects, including power plants.

The signal from this meeting was clear: Suriya, who together with Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsuthin have mustered factional control of 125 Thai Rak Thai MPs following Sunday’s crushing election win, is likely to keep his transport portfolio.

Somkid, who looks set to stay in charge of the economy, has been tasked with coming up with the money to finance the mega-infrastructure projects.

The Thai Rak Thai Party’s pledge to tackle Bangkok’s traffic problems through massive investment in the mass-transit system was a major factor in it wining 32 out of the 37 MP seats in the capital.

Due to budget constraints brought on by the 1997 economic crisis, governments have refrained from setting aside funds for investment in infrastructure projects.

But infrastructure investment will become the key engine driving economic growth over the next four years.

Suriya said that to finance the expansion of the mass-transit system, the Transport Ministry would be allocated Bt50 billion a year over the next four years from the central-government budget.

The remaining Bt300-billion-plus is likely to come from other fund mobilisations, such as the stock market, the special-purpose vehicle, and securitisation of assets or loans, he said.

The Office of Transport and Policy and Planning is responsible for drafting the feasibility study of the seven mass-transit routes.

Of the 248-kilometre expansion, 147 kilometres will be elevated routes and 53 kilometres underground routes.

Once completed, the mass-transit systems will save Bangkok Bt102 billion a year in transport and energy costs, the agency said.

As the infrastructure investment would lead to massive imports that could adversely affect Thailand’s trade account, Thaksin wants the Transport Ministry to persuade the yet-to-be-named manufacturer of the rail coaches and other equipment to relocate its plant to Thailand.

This would reduce Thailand’s dependence on imports, because the plant would rely more on domestic materials, Suriya said.

“I don’t think financing is a problem. I shall be discussing further with Dr Somkid the details before going ahead with the projects,” he said.

“We’ll be setting priorities for the projects. Any projects that can go ahead quickly will do so.”

Thailand’s strong fiscal position and robust economy could absorb the financial burden of the costly projects, Somkid said.

“The country can easily implement these projects, which will come under the supervision of the Finance Ministry,’’ he said.

“We are confident that they will not affect our macro-economic picture, nor will they create debt problems.”

Meanwhile the prime minister pledged yesterday that the government would keep the economic-growth rate above or equal to that of the past four years by maintaining a current-account surplus.

“With this high level of economic growth, the current account would normally run into deficit, but the government will not let it do so,” Thaksin said.

Published on February 12, 2005

Watcharaphong Thongrung

The Nation

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ANALYSIS: Can PM combine efficiency with cleanliness in Thaksin II?

Prime minister faces a dilemma in choosing his new Cabinet line-up

Suriya Jungrungruengkit, secretary-general of the Thai Rak Thai Party, made a high-profile visit to Government House yesterday to discuss the huge infrastructure-investment plans for the next four years with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Ordinarily the meeting would not have been unusual given that Suriya is the transport minister. But there was a particular show of unity that two of the country’s most powerful political figures wanted to put on by staging the meeting.

First, they are as close as ever. Second, Suriya is highly likely to stay on as the minister of transport in the government’s second term. Third, all the rumours about Suwat Liptapanlop becoming one of Thaksin’s choices of successors is a non-starter as far as trading Suwat off with Suriya is concerned.

But things are never that simple in Thai politics despite the overwhelming victory by the ruling Thai Rak Thai Party in last Sunday’s election. With 376 parliamentary seats under its belt, the party finds itself with at least 13 political factions, all of which are held together by its leader. Thaksin himself is in a dilemma. One group of people close to him thinks the many votes his party acquired gives Thaksin an unprecedented opportunity to form the best Cabinet ever under a democratically elected government.

But another group, which has Thaksin’s other ear, thinks that political reality must still take precedence, which means rewarding faction leaders who helped Thai Rak Thai muster its big election win. The message coming from all of this has been at best confusing. The prime minister talked about filling the next Cabinet with “clean” people in his first display of being a “statesman” leader.

But this cleanliness was not precisely described. It referred neither to their pasts nor their futures.

Running parallel to this are the thank-you billboard ads put up by Thai Rak Thai with the message that the people can expect the “best possible efficiency” in administration of the country. Ambiguity prevails.

Yesterday a Government House source said one of the new members of the Cabinet would be Virachai Veerametheekul, an adviser to Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. Virachai is a son-in-law of Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman of the CP Group.

Sources in the vicinity of one of Thaksin’s ears suggested that Suriya, Newin Chidchob, Somsak Thepsuthin, Soonthaya Khoomplome and Adisai Bodharamik would be left out of the Cabinet.

Nobody is quite sure how this group was put together, although one source suggested that these personalities had a particular image in the eyes of “international” investors and “local business” leaders.

Or did it come from a public poll, or as a result of their respective performances? Certainly, each of them has one or more scars. And so too do other existing Cabinet members, although their images may not be as notable. This is surely a factor that also determines the ability of the prime minister to get the country’s “best and brightest” to join the new government.

Thaksin’s new Cabinet will be aired in the next few weeks as he tries to side-step political land-mines. At the same time he has to try to meet public expectations of delivering a “clean” Cabinet and not to hold the country hostage with one-party rule and a mediocre or corrupt government.

Act 1 of single-party rule has begun.

Political Desk

The Nation

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