Forget all the rosy pledges
A new president who takes responsibility for the country’s governance for the next five years has been born. The winner and supporters should enjoy the triumphant moment. The excitement will be great because the victory came after an intense and tight race. But the president-elect has no time to lose given an urgent need to form a transition team and set a direction for governance. How well the incoming governing team prepares until formal inauguration in February will be crucial for the five-year presidential term. The mishaps of past presidents have all originated from a poor preparatory period.
The incoming president faces a bumpy road ahead. The economy is collapsing, income and social disparities widening, and geopolitical tensions around the Korean Peninsula escalating. The authority bestowed upon the people’s choice is no personal trophy to treasure and enjoy, but a heavy onus to tackle the mounting difficult tasks. If the president-elect does not demonstrate boldness and capabilities to navigate against the storm and headwinds, Wednesday’s victory would end up more as a curse than glory. That would be a misfortune not only for the individual but for each and every one of the supporters.
The first thing the president-elect must do is to throw out all the rosy promises made during the campaign trail. Some would think it is preposterous to wipe out promises to the people. But the platforms the candidates laid out during the campaign fall short of saving a country at risk and driving it back to the safe path for sustainable growth. They may have helped in drawing votes, but most would do more harm than good to the country. They should not be upheld simply because they have been promised. The president-elect therefore should remove all sweeteners and creams and start afresh to formulate a new and feasible recipe to guide the country for the next five years.
The campaign planks had too many flaws to start with. Candidates and campaign teams customized platforms to grasp immediate public attention and woo votes rather than seek lasting prosperity. They were a contest of trivial and popular banner cries rather than about visions to divert the economy from its faltering path. The two leading candidates both talked about improving people’s lives and increasing jobs, but without a basic framework on fostering growth and prosperity, their prescriptions won’t likely have any positive or lasting effects.
Their plans on boosting the social security net, welfare and jobs have not been backed by feasible financing programs. Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party promised to deliver a “selective” welfare program at a cost of 131 trillion won ($122 billion). Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party went further with a 192 trillion won promise of “universal or equal for all” welfare. Both could not answer convincingly how they would come up with the money to finance their exorbitant plans. The programs are hardly feasible when there are no financing means. If the economy plods along at the current snail’s pace without any traction, tax revenues will continue to decrease. The government simply won’t have any money to keep these campaign promises.
Just because the president is elected, it does not mean the new leader and all their platforms are favored. A candidate that won with a vote ratio of 51 percent does not suggest the platforms have support from a majority of the population. We could take past examples. One of the key promises by President Roh Moo-hyun had been the idea of moving the administrative capital to Chungcheong. The pledge largely targeted a particular constituency. A nationwide poll showed that the majority opposed the plan. But Roh pushed ahead with the project by claiming it had been his pledge to the entire people.
President Lee Myung-bak’s promise of the so-called cross-nation “Grand Canal” project had been no different, although he withdrew the plan due to strong opposition. This year’s campaign did not have such colossal state projects but nevertheless generated a spatter of regional pork-barrel projects. Since they lack approval from the majority of the public, they can trigger regional conflict and noise when carried out.
Promises are made to honor. But they are better left undone if they fall incongruous to the presidential role that must pursue national interests and prosperity. Under the single-term system, a president is not obliged to keep all campaign promises. That does not mean throwing them all away, but rather teasing unfeasible ones out and prioritizing plausible ones in order.
The president then should explain to the people and seek their understanding why the promises cannot be pursued, whether they are funding or conflict of interest problems. The people should also keep their minds open.
While re-examining policies from scratch, the president-elect should consider borrowing ideas from the opponent’s platform that have been hugely popular with the people. The other half of the voters are the president’s people as well.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo