[VIEWPOINT]Sweden’s elections offer a lesson to KoreaIt is not easy to discriminate between right and wrong in a debate or a dispute. If you look into a matter of debate from the position of a third party, in many cases you will find that both sides make claims that mix up right and wrong. And there are occasions wherein you cannot gloss over the situation by nodding at both sides, saying, “You are right” and “You are right, too,” as Prime Minister Hwang Hee did under King Sejong in the Joseon Dynasty. Especially if the matter is concerned with the national agenda, to say that both sides are either right or wrong would not be helpful to the nation.
There is a hot debate going on about the result of the recent Swedish parliamentary elections. It is not an election that occurred in any of the major powers, such as the United States, Japan, China or Russia that directly affect the Korean Peninsula. Rather it was an election in a nation with a population of only 9 million known only as the country that sponsors the Nobel Prize. Still, the Korean press carried big headlines on the election results.
That’s because in Korea, a debate on whether priority should be given to economic growth or distribution of wealth has been going on since the inauguration of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The administration has reportedly benchmarked Sweden as its model for welfare policy.
Therefore, the analysis that the Swedish welfare policy had ended was followed by the assertion that the government policy to expand the application of the welfare system should be reconsidered on a full scale.
But the Blue House, the government and the Uri Party responded to such assertions by saying, “The problem with Sweden was in the excessive expansion of welfare benefits, but the problem with South Korea is in its lack of welfare benefits.”
In order to rightly discriminate between the two sides, we have to understand what the results of the Swedish general elections mean.
Fredrick Reinfeldt, who leads the conservative four-party center-right alliance, pledged that he would change Sweden’s welfare policy if he got elected. At the same time, he has also tried hard throughout the campaign to reduce the uneasiness of the voters, saying there will be no changes in the benefits to elderly citizens and in the education fields.
By doing so, he gave more weight to partial change in the Swedish welfare model than an overall revision of the system itself. However hard one may try to minimize the implication of the election results, the shock wave it has created in Europe is not small. This was especially so because other countries have considered Sweden to be the model of a successful welfare state.
Leaders of progressive parties used to visit Sweden when their parties succeeded in taking control of political power.
From Sweden, they wanted to learn the secret of not losing the dynamism of economic growth while maintaining the structure of a heavy tax burden that creates generous welfare benefits.
Goran Persson, the former Swedish prime minister, used to enjoy an exceedingly high profile relative to his country’s status at the Progressive Governance Summit. Mr. Persson once had the honor of delivering a keynote speech on the Swedish success story, ahead of the heads of the United Kingdom and Germany.
The Progressive Governance Summit was established in 1998 when a progressive government under former Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder came to power in Germany, following the re-election of Bill Clinton as president of the United States in 1996 and the establishment of the Labor Party government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the United Kingdom in 1997.
The summit brings together a small network of leaders who share a progressive vision for their countries and for the world; it works like a club of like-minded leaders who exchange views and learn from each other how to cope with challenges and opportunities.
Although the summit meeting was held annually in the past, there is no guarantee that it will be held in subsequent years because the number of participants grows smaller year after year as more and more progressive governments have failed to sustain or regain political power. A right-wing government came to power in France in 2002 and in Germany this year a center-right coalition government took power.
In that context, the result of the Swedish elections was a decisive blow that confirmed the decline of left-wing governments in Europe.
Prime Minister Persson’s government failed to regain power because of a high unemployment rate that reached 20 percent, the highest unemployment rate in western Europe, and the inefficiency of the economy.
From its early days since inauguration, the Roh Moo-hyun administration has pledged that it would catch the two rabbits of growth and welfare at the same time.
But the economy is still struggling under stagnation, youth unemployment is increasing and the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider and deeper. This has led to a public sentiment in which people suspect the legitimacy of the government’s policy of welfare expansion, even though South Korea spends the smallest amount of its budget on welfare of any of the OECD member countries.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom was re-elected for the third time in a row ― a first in the history of the Labor Party ― because he revived the vitality of the economy, achieving an economic growth of more than 30 percent in 10 years.
There is no one in Korea who will say no to a plan to increase the budget for welfare gradually. The assertion that South Korea lacks in welfare benefits is right, too.
But a majority of the people think we should not make our economy lose its growth potential by emphasizing distribution and welfare excessively.
Since the present administration is reluctant to admit it, there is no way to persuade the leadership. But the presidential hopefuls in the next elections will not be able to evade this issue.
They must keep in mind that the people’s attention has moved to taxes, economy and livelihood a long time ago.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo