How to sell tough changes

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How to sell tough changes

Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri party and Moon Jae-in of the rival Democratic United Party entered the final stretch running up to the Dec. 19 presidential election with a tighter focus after their formidable independent contender, Ahn Cheol-soo, dropped out of the race. With the complicated variables of a three-way race removed, the stage is set for a showdown between the two.

Packages describing their platforms will be delivered to homes across the country and every registered candidate will have his or her time on TV, either individually or in debates with rivals. Voters now have to study and compare the candidates to make up their minds. We finally should have a chance to see a clear contest of policies in this election.

But unfortunately, the final blitz may not give us such a clear-cut contest of policies. The two main candidates may have prepared what they think is a groaning board of promises and pledges, but that doesn’t mean they will satisfy the demands of the public. What the people of Korea really and urgently need are solutions to a structural economic slowdown and wealth polarization.

The answer lies in generating decent jobs. That is what voters desperately seek. Yet neither of the two main candidates have taken this issue seriously. It’s not easy to stimulate growth in an export-dependant economy when the rest of the world is in the dumps. One could get a Noble Prize in Economics if you came up with an immediate solution.

If there’s no short-term impetus to stimulating growth and jobs, the candidates should present some kind of road map so that there is hope down the road. They have reasons for saving their policies for the future. The prescriptions for structural stagnation and wealth polarization are likely to be bitter and promises of tough economic love don’t sound very sweet to voters’ ears.

Today’s economic situation is not as dramatic as the one in 1997 that led the country to seek an international bailout, but the looming threat is just as alarming. The state-run Korea Development Institute cut its economic growth forecast to 2.2 percent for this year and 3.0 percent for next year. Other economic think tanks at home and abroad predict next year’s growth will be below 3 percent. The economy will be moving below its growth potential for the third consecutive year.

Without traction, the economy may lose the vitality needed to recover. Thousands of young people vainly trying to find jobs may lose hope altogether. We are in as acute an emergency as during the foreign exchange crisis of the late 1990s.

In order to overcome these fundamental problems, we need sweeping measures of liberalization to expand domestic consumption and restructure in unproductive sectors. Both efforts will elicit howls of protest from concerned parties and interest groups. They will require a measure of pain and certain sacrifices from people across the board.

A presidential-hopeful cannot expect to win if he or she promises hard times. It’s tough enough to sell a sweet platform. No one would dare talk about bitter and extreme austerity and restructuring measures. That is why all we get are sweet and delicious looking dishes on the campaign menu.

But we have had honest presidents who were bold enough to offer hard-to-swallow recipes. President Kim Dae-jung spoke about the inevitability and necessity of national restructuring and pain-sharing. His words sank in and were accepted because the country was in a crisis. The same call won’t strike home with voters today because the danger is slowly seeping in.

Is there no other way to persuade voters of the need for major changes without jeopardizing one’s chance in the election? We can apply the theory of the sugar-coated pill: A delicate repackaging of a platform comprised of tough and testy policies that don’t alarm voters to the point of all-out panic.

The essence would be bitter for curing effect, but coated with something sweet to help it go down better. Some could call it deception. But that could be forgiven if the end is met. For instance, the effect on creating jobs and expanding domestic demand from a policy to ease regulations to liberalize a particular sector could be emphasized without going into great detail on the potential impact on vulnerable parties.

But to sell such sugar-coated policies, the candidate and party would have to be fully aware of the urgency of the situation to justify the need for strong action.

Despite the repackaging, the essence must be potent. There must be a clear difference between a populist platform based on nothing but rhetoric and sugar-coated policies that actually cure a condition. An insightful voter would be able to see the difference. Voters should study the effects of the pills, not the packaging. They must decide what can help them in the long run. Then they should swallow.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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