Populism in full swingPopulism is in full swing in the political realm ahead of the by-elections for mayoral posts in the two most important cities, Seoul and Busan, in April next year and the presidential election in 2022. The government and ruling Democratic Party (DP) have scrapped the plan to expand Gimhae Airport, a decision approved by the previous government, and plans to construct a new international airport in Gadeok Island, Busan, to meet the growing demand on the southern coast. They plan to railroad with the plan through a special act to exempt the project from a state feasibility study to finish construction by 2028. They are reversing a multi- billion-dollar project overnight and pursuing the Gadeok project without any thought or logic. The project has only one goal — not to lose the Busan mayor post left by former party member Oh Geo-don who had to resign for sexual misconduct.
The cheerleader behind the populist politics has been DP Chairman Lee Nak-yon, an undeclared presidential aspirant from the ruling party. He urged the legislature to quickly pass special acts for Gadeok as well as for a new airport in Daegu and the relocation of the Gwangju airport. The three projects are elephantine, requiring colossal tax funds. The party aims to appease voters of Daegu and North Gyeongsang as well as the Jeolla region ahead of the by-elections.
Election vows on airport projects in the past had caused huge damage. They wasted massive tax money on loss-making airports which later turned into white elephants. Chairman Lee who aspires to become a head of state is, however, fanning the move.
Earlier this month, Lee vowed an incremental relocation of the National Assembly to Sejong City. The project requires public consensus as the relocation had been struck down by the Constitutional Court because it was “unconstitutional.” His remarks are aimed at drawing votes in Chungcheong amid waning approval ratings of the president and the ruling party in the region.
The opposition People Power Party (PPP) also joined the populism race. The party proposed to work toward earmarking 3.6 trillion won ($3.3 billion) of relief handouts to the people in the government’s 2021 budget. The PPP justified its proposal by arguing that a pre-emptive handout would be better as the ruling party could draw up another supplementary budget for cash handouts ahead of the April elections. Whatever the reasons, both the ruling and opposition parties are engrossed in the populist race with little regard for fiscal integrity and the country’s future.
Lives have become shattered for many people due to a yearlong pandemic crisis. The international order also remains uncertain. Yet politicians at home are entirely preoccupied with self-interest. They must stop the populism binge immediately.