[Viewpoint] Populism rearing its ugly head

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[Viewpoint] Populism rearing its ugly head

The JoongAng Ilbo has bitter memories when it comes to Sejong City. The newspaper missed an extremely important story back in late September 2001 when it sat down with Roh Moo-hyun, then a Democratic Party presidential candidate, for an exclusive interview.

“Since I have to take into account other newspapers’ positions, you should pick one of two topics for your article,” Roh said during the interview. One was his plan to dispatch talented public servants to each region by assigning regional quotas. The other? A pledge to build a new administrative capital city.

At the time, support for Roh was far lower than the backing for Lee Hoi-chang and Chung Mong-joon. There appeared to be a very low possibility that he would actually win the presidency. The JoongAng Ilbo decided to feature Roh’s new public servant dispatch plan, as it was tied to his long-time convictions. Roh even admitted that his plan to relocate the capital city “probably sounds silly since I have such low support.”

Lee Byung-wan, former presidential chief of staff under Roh, shared a similar account in his book “The nation of Park Chung Hee, the nation of Kim Dae-jung and the nation of Roh Moo-hyun.”

Before Roh announced his presidential bid, he needed some type of breakthrough to generate interest. The Roh camp was split over his pledge to relocate the administrative capital. Lee, who worked as a primary speechwriter, raised his voice in support. “There is nothing to lose,” he said, according to the book. “At least we will be featured on the front pages of national newspapers.”

Roh replied with a question: “If we present this, won’t we become a laughingstock?”

Lee, however, did not back down. Roh then lit a cigarette and said, “O.K. Then that’s what we will do.”

This pledge to build an administrative capital city has now been riling up the nation for more than eight years. Populism is often a hideout for politicians with low approval ratings. They tend to appeal to the public’s dissatisfactions and emotions, rather than their reasoning, to make one final gamble. The problem begins when a populist candidate actually wins dramatically. Such a situation creates enormous effects that linger for a long time, and Korea is belatedly experiencing these pains.

The bigger problem is that more and more populist pledges are being made. Ahead of the June local elections, the issue of providing free lunches at school cafeterias has cropped up. Most opposition party candidates back the idea, and some Grand Nationals are now pressuring the government to get on board.

In order to provide free school lunches, about 1.8 trillion won ($1.6 billion) in additional funds will be needed annually. In principle, I agree with providing free school lunches, as it provides immense benefits to children in poor families. I also disagree with some people’s snide remarks that schools are not soup kitchens. I am not, however, confident that society is ready to share the burden. To provide free school lunches, more taxes likely will have to be levied, or other education budgets will have to be cut.

According to recent polls, about 90 percent of parents support free school lunches. At the same time, about 90 percent are opposed to the plan of paying more taxes to do so. Unless this contradiction is resolved, “free school lunches” is nothing more than an empty phrase. While politicians say that the idea of providing free school lunches must not be approached politically or ideologically, they actually use it to attack their opponents. It’s also disturbing that candidates with low approval ratings are obsessed with this pledge.

The biggest threat to the global economy this year is the finance sector. Many troubled banks and companies around the globe have been nationalized. Governments have used national budgets to address the problems. The crisis in public finance will rank as the biggest since the global financial meltdown. Once it arrives, it will stay for some time. Greece and Spain are just two examples of what’s in store.

As of late last year, total national deficits around the world amounted to $49.5 trillion - 45 percent more than before the economic crisis. When central banks increase interest rates to stabilize inflation, the public finance crisis will deepen. We are on the verge of seeing the real effects of the global economic crisis.

The Blue House said Korea’s financial position is solid, but it’s not paying much attention to the school lunch plan. This attitude is suspicious, as it signals that the government may be fearful. The opposition party’s attitude is even more disturbing. The Democratic Party said local elections should be used to judge the administration’s performance. And yet it still argues that the free lunch program is vitally important.

That’s an incredible contradiction. As I see the opposition party’s populist pledge, the image of Roh’s face swims in my head.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Cheol-ho
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