The least developed fieldBoth sides of our political aisle are swept up in how to choose candidates for the general election seven months away. A country like the United States, where a political party’s ways are well rooted, can safely leave the nomination of candidates to tried-and-true ways. Korea’s political parties have begun to include public opinion polls in the nomination process because it gives some transparency and some role to the public at large. It also favors newcomers to politics, who are often popular with the public.
The so-called “strategic” nomination process - otherwise known as backroom deals - have often involved internal power struggle among rival party factions. Political leaders and presidential hopefuls should possess the openness to respect candidates chosen by the people. But within parties, rival factions have drawn lines among some claiming to be loyal to one leader or another.
The leaders of the ruling and opposition parties agreed to open primaries for the general election in April based on telephone polling of the general public and the use of so-called secured telephone numbers. It is commendable that the parties are returning the nomination authority to the general public. The parties must overcome their factional differences and instead concentrate on tightening technical loopholes in the nomination process. Instead of fighting amongst themselves, they must compete fairly through policy platforms and visions for governance for a better future. The April election will be considered a curtain raiser for the main political contest: the presidential election in the latter part of the following year. Because people’s livelihoods have become more insecure than ever, people will be closely watching out for promises of hope and change during the campaign process.
First of all, the people want to know what party has the will to pull the economy away from the danger of a structural slowdown. On the campaign trail of the previous general and presidential elections, welfare was pitched as being more important than economic growth. Politicians competed to sell various social benefit programs without considering how to come up with the means of paying for them, including the possibility of tax hikes.
Welfare programs are still eating up the national budget and pushing up debt. Both parties must make it clear whether they will continue with the competition over welfare spending in the upcoming elections. Since other countries clearly prove the limits and dangers of debt-financed growth, the only way to drive growth is through revived corporate activities. But pressure on large companies to share their growth with smaller companies will only weaken their growth potential.
Second, redistribution of wealth and welfare are unquestionably as important campaign issues as growth. Fiercer global competition has widened wealth inequalities. Due to low interest rates and a real estate slump, the gap in wages has become bigger and there’s a widening disparity in distribution of assets. Narrowing the earnings gap between large and smaller companies and between salaried and non-regular workers has become necessary for fairer distribution. Both parties must articulate their stance on the unions of large companies clinging to their various prerogatives in terms of wages and other benefits.
Higher taxes on the rich could draw cheers from the public, but there are no realistic tax hikes that could can pay for universal welfare programs. The cost of easing poverty among senior citizens must be raised in a more reasonable and sustainable way. Tax-backed financing should be sought for a limited transitional period until the public pension system becomes more established.
Third, Korea’s diplomatic capacity to respond to globalization and trade blocks has become a crucial issue. Korea must become stronger to survive the growth of China and the technology advancement of Japan. Korea can only win through more opening up. It will naturally become strong if foreign companies with capital and technologies prefer to do business here. The country must offer various incentives to draw some of the 7 million ethnic Koreans living all over the world to return and make up for the thinning working population in Korea.
Immigration policy should be more open to foreign workers. We must take the initiative to build a cooperative framework with Asian countries and, further down the road, include North Korea to prompt progressive change in the reclusive state as a part of peace and unification strategy.
Lastly, since the general election will lead to the presidential election, parties must put forward political reform outlines and visions. Over the last 27 years, we have experienced the merits and drawbacks of a single five-year presidential term system through six presidents. Because of a rigid political structure that revolves too much around the president, the legislative function has not been integrated so well. Politicians must keep in mind that politics are the most underdeveloped field in our country.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 35
*The author is former minister of finance and economy.
by Kang Bong-kyun