Buying votes with electricity

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Buying votes with electricity

Anyone who remembers the 1970s will remember the utility poles. Made with larch trees covered with coal tar, touching them would get your hands dirty. Still, kids in the neighborhood used to love to compete and see who could climb them the fastest. The rough wood used to give you splinters in your palms and thighs.

The poles were also targets for local dogs seeking to mark their territory. Sometimes children and drunken passersby would use them for a similar purpose. Such activity made the areas around the poles smell terrible during the summer. But not everyone had to worry about that, as around 80 percent of the nation’s rural towns didn’t have utility poles.

During the period, one of the major projects of the Park Chung Hee administration was to improve the electricity supply to rural farming and fishing villages. Cities had a 100 percent electricity supply rate, but the figure dropped to 20 percent in the countryside.

In March 1970, the government created a very specific plan to get power into small towns. According to the scheme, the rate was to be increased to 52.4 percent by 1976. To this end, 80,000 utility poles, 4,250 tons of power cables and 8,000 current transformers were to be provided to villages with more than 80 households. The project was to cost about 45.9 billion won ($41 million) not including personnel expenses. The government planned to come up with the funds by doubling the tax on kerosene, which was used as heating oil for public baths and urban homes.

The money raised in cities was spent in farming and fishing villages. At the time, conventional wisdom was that the ruling party was more popular in rural areas, while opposition parties were winning more votes in cities. It was no wonder the government and the ruling party put so much effort into providing power to the countryside - electricity meant votes.

Memories of Korea’s past arose in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in April this year. At the time, the tropical city was heating up even further with the fever of the general elections. In an office with no air conditioning, one government official said, “We buy votes with electricity.”

During the election period, the electricity supply to five-star hotels and foreigner-owned buildings was cut and the power diverted to the Cambodian people. This is a routine practice that the Cambodian government has enjoyed the benefits of for some time.

Three months later, the legislative elections ended. The Hun Sen regime, despite being confident of a victory, suffered a serious blow. The opposition won 55 seats, coming in only 13 seats behind the ruling party. So in Cambodia, the era when you could use electricity to buy votes is coming to a close.

Let us now look at the Bismarckian model. He was a rightist, but he still created a prototype of a welfare state. He believed that people only feel fear when they have things to lose. Therefore, he believed providing social security benefits was the way to increase the conservative base.

If you substitute electricity for social security benefits, you can say that, to win the votes of right-wingers, you need to supply them with enough electricity. This tends to be true in developing countries.

Let’s look at the situation here in Korea in August 2013. This summer, the public has received intensive education in enduring the summer heat. Actually, the situation hasn’t been too bad because of the rains, and the peak is expected to come next week.

The government plan is to urge the public to save energy, to provide incentives to companies that save energy and to slap additional fees on peak-time electricity use. This is no different from the 1970’s plea to the public that each home save energy by turning off one light.

Let’s say we’re fortunate enough not to have any major power outages this year. What are we going to do next year?

The key issue when it comes to the nation’s power shortage is our nuclear plants. Since the Fukushima disaster, the myth of nuclear plants has effectively ended. Nuclear power generation is no longer a cheap energy source. Environmental and safety issues have astronomically increased the social cost of such plants.

The controversy surrounding the construction of high-voltage transmission towers in Miryang is an example worth considering. If the government accepts local residents’ demands and puts in 37 kilometers (23 miles) worth of underground cables instead of the towers, it needs an additional 2.7 trillion won. That’s five times more than the total project budget of 520 billion won. Miryang won’t be the only problem. Other controversies are already popping up around the nation, including in Dangjin, South Chungcheong.

But the Park Geun-hye government has yet to present its blueprint on nuclear energy. It has maintained the ambiguous position of going with the status quo. Earlier this year, the government adopted a basic energy plan, but what’s going to happen with the construction of new nuclear plants after 2025 was left to the imagination.

Numerous answers to our power problems have already been suggested. It is a matter of decision. We can expand the use of renewable energy or we can buy electricity from neighboring countries. Jang Jeong-wook, a professor of economics at Matsuyama University, even suggested the extremely provocative suggestion of building a nuclear plant in central Seoul. Environmental groups’ argument to completely do away with nuclear power is another suggestion. Of course, national consensus is mandatory before any decision is pursued.

The real problem is time. The government must stop saying that things will get better next year. If we do nothing, we will become another Cambodia. Do we really want to become a country where politicians can buy votes with electricity?

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

By Yi Jung-jae
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