Airports to nowhere
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Election season must be coming up, given the reignited conflict over a new international airport on the southeastern coast. The issue has dominated campaigns in southern regions during every election for more than a decade after the idea of establishing it was proposed during the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
President Moon Jae-in is beating the drum, and the government and ruling party are going along. In the south, the plan has become more of a certainty. The city of Daegu expects one and Jeolla wants one on the reclaimed land of Saemangeum. The government has announced 24 trillion won ($21.4 billion) worth of state-budgeted construction exempt from preliminary feasibility studies, and the ruling party proposed fast-tracked pork-barrel projects first in Busan and South Gyeongsang, traditionally dominated by conservative voters.
Many are already shaking their heads. Infrastructure projects cost billions and they are often reversed, causing ceaseless wrangling and conflict. The ruling party, when it was the main opposition, had been most critical of the conservative governments under President Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye for squandering tax money on elephantine pork-barrel projects. The most vocal critic — Moon — is doing the same now as the president. Whether he admits it or not, he, too, has resorted to pork-barrel politics.
Like his predecessors he had criticized, Moon also is running the government as a political party. A political party must indulge voters, but the government must not. The government must focus on the broad population. But the ruling party entirely focuses on the voters that gave it power. For Moon, it would be the 41 percent that had elected him. It is why projects for individual constituencies made on the campaign trail become bundled into state projects.
Since voters are conservative, liberals and centrists, ideological campaigning alone cannot win votes. A more popular agenda, like expensive construction projects that can aid the regional economy, must be thrown in.
Korea’s fundamental weaknesses and ills cannot be fixed no matter how many presidents and ruling parties change because of the flawed politics. Ideology-led reasoning overrules politics and politicians secure their stronghold by capitalizing on the presidential and bipartisan systems. What are said before and after elections rarely stay consistent. The ruling power usually rules on ideology. Politics become distrusted and hated.
Without a change in the system, nothing will change no matter how many new governments come to power and presidents vow to be different. The election system must change so that the vote of a centrist is as valuable as one from the traditional liberal and conservative front.
Politicians know this well. They repeatedly promise and agree to overhaul the system to better reflect voters, but actions are not followed through. Politicians neglect to fix their biggest disease.
There is still one solution. The legislative election should be changed so that lawmakers do not have to worry about votes in the next election. If candidates cannot run beyond three terms, they won’t make promises about airports. The idea is not bizarre. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for a cap on the life of a politician to three terms.
A president in Korea serves for a single five-year term. A mayor or governor cannot run beyond three terms. The Constitutional Court found term limits perfectly legal. There is no reason why it cannot be applied to Korean legislators. The Korean legislature has become all-mighty in impeaching a president. It, too, must come under strict criteria to make its action justifiable.
Many areas of the country have gone through rigid tests to rid them of the wrongs of the past. But the National Assembly has remained intact. Power in Korea comes not from the people but from politicians.
Legislators must put their public role before their private interests. Political power can only be respected this way.
“I was the future once,” Former British Prime Minister David Cameron said as he left politics at the age of 50 after bringing conservatives to power for the first time in 13 years. Benjamin Disraeli, who 136 years before brought conservatives back to ruling power for the first time in 30 years, also parted with the advice “Life is too short to be little.” When can Koreans deserve some “big” politicians?
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 22, Page 30