Filtering out candidates’ promisesIn past presidential elections, campaign pledges have done more harm than good. Instead of feasible and thoroughly studied ideas, promises were mostly impromptu, tailored or inflated to attract votes. They helped to put the candidate in office, but the government and society frequently paid a heavy price to clean up the mess. The best examples are large-scale social infrastructure projects.
In 1988, presidential candidate Roh Tae-woo promised to develop the estuary of Saemangeum as part of his largest land reclamation project. The former general from North Gyeongsang pledged the ambitious pork-barrel project to get votes in the rival Jeolla region. The project sparked a tedious and lengthy fight between the government and environmental activists in and out of courts for nearly two decades over economic effectiveness and environmental risks.
In 2002, liberal ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun promised to move the capital to Chungcheong. But after he was elected, the Constitutional Court ruled the plan was illegal. His government eventually modified the project to build a new administrative municipality of Sejong in the region. The project remained controversial and seriously impaired the Lee Myung-bak administration, which tried to revise the plan. The city is nearly completed, but it remains unclear how the experiment of long-distance government would work.
The excesses of campaign promises are being repeated. There are no elephantine pork barrels except for a revived plan to build an airport in the southeast region at a cost of 10 trillion won ($8.9 billion). Instead, candidates are competing on social welfare promises, which could be as much of a budget burden as infrastructure projects.
But there is no mechanism to control these ambitious and questionable promises. Prior to the legislative election in April, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance warned that welfare programs pledged by the ruling Saenuri Party would cost the government 75 trillion won over the next five years and the bill for the main opposition Democratic United Party’s plan could reach 165 trillion won. But the National Election Commission criticized the announcement, saying it could undermine state neutrality.
Ahn Cheol-soo, who joined the presidential race with just three months left until the election, has not even come up with a campaign platform. When he does, it may be difficult to distinguish between policy and promises. Good campaign platforms could save the election and the country, but bad ones will only deceive voters.