Mired in populism

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Mired in populism

The Lee Myung-bak administration is ringing alarm bells like never before. First, the whole country is irrevocably mired in an unprecedented typhoon of populism amid the deepening polarization of the general population. But the ruling camp has lost its direction for fear of a defeat in next year’s general elections. Second, the ruling Grand National Party is facing strong internal pressure from a powerful group that is putting the brakes on the party’s platform. Third, the opposition camp, buoyed by the sharp rift in the ruling camp, is further promoting populist policies in hopes of taking power.

It all started with the newly elected GNP floor leader’s abrupt proposal to cut college tuition in half. The party then announced a plan to lower the cost by 30 percent by 2014 - without consulting the Lee administration. If the administration upholds the plan, it will cost 3 trillion won ($2.8 billion) each year starting in 2014.

The party is against a proposal to provide free lunches to elementary school students regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic status, and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is pushing forward a referendum on the proposal. But Nam Kyung-pil and Yoo Seung-min - both candidates for party chair - have bluntly opposed Oh’s plan to put the proposal to a vote.

The Blue House and ruling party have fallen out of balance after crushing defeats in by-elections in April, and the party lost momentum after many lawmakers broke ranks with the once-dominant pro-Lee faction. Meanwhile, the GNP’s loss in the by-elections has only fueled the arrogance of the opposition camp. Following its victory in the upscale Bundang B District, the main opposition Democratic Party is convinced it can win the general and presidential elections as long as it wins votes from the middle class.

The DP’s solution to the tuition issue was phased subsidies for the bottom half of the income bracket. Yet it suddenly adopted a universal 50 percent cut after its chairman supported it. The DP also vehemently demands a renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. FTA, which is awaiting ratification, while forcefully blocking the passage of a North Korea human rights act.

A healthy society would first concentrate on how to strike balance between growth and welfare. But some politicians argue for unconditional aid for the underprivileged, which will ultimately lead to a swamp of dependence. Park Geun-hye - considered to be the frontrunner in next year’s presidential election - and other challengers must remember that they, too, are not free from the swamp.
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