Populism and grievances

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Populism and grievances

Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.



A number of contestants are vying for the presidency ahead of the March 9 election. In the ruling Democratic Party (DP), six are competing after two were eliminated in a preliminary round. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) has more presidential candidates than the DP — well over ten — after former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a frontrunner in polls, joined the PPP following Choe Jae-hyung, former head of the Board of Audit and Inspection. More candidates are running for president than ever. But the current race starkly suggests the possibility of a race dominated by populism and past grievances.
 
Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, an overwhelming frontrunner in the DP, stoked controversy even among the ruling front after he brazenly opposed the government’s plan to hand out relief grants to the lower 88 percent income brackets and proposed to give the money to everyone. In the face of concerted criticism from other DP candidates, including Lee Nak-yon, former prime minister, Gov. Lee continued to promote such universal handouts.
 
The reason for other DP candidates’ opposition to universal grants seems obvious. They just don’t believe in the efficacy and sustainability of such generous cash handouts. The liberal Moon Jae-in administration has already added 400 trillion won ($346.4 billion) in national debt over the past four years. But Gov. Lee does not care. He even pledged to hand out 80,000 won to every citizen each month with a whopping 52-trillion-won annual budget. He is convinced of the strong need to dole out the grants even by railroading a budget bill through the National Assembly. Not only PPP candidates but also DP candidates think Lee went too far. But Lee’s pushing it thanks to the support he perceives from the public.
 
 The ruling Democratic Party’s frontrunner Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, left, and the opposition People Power Party’s frontrunner Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general.

The ruling Democratic Party’s frontrunner Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, left, and the opposition People Power Party’s frontrunner Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general.

Another outstanding feature of this heated race is a war on the past. In the PPP, Yoon, the former prosecutor general, is leading a battle against President Moon. There are plenty of grounds for Yoon’s ire. He believes the Moon administration has caused enormous pain to the people by dividing them into friends and foes based on ideology and pressing ahead with highly risky economic experiments. Examples are abundant, such as rapid hikes in the minimum wage, adverse effects of its regulation-based real estate policy, reckless upgrades of part-timers onto permanent payrolls, mandatory introduction of a 52-hour workweek, and the shortsighted nuclear power phase-out. Moon’s policies led to economic havoc as seen in an increase in the jobless, skyrocketing apartment prices, soaring rents for 108 consecutive weeks, and a widened wealth gap among the people. Moon deserves Yoon’s criticism about his policy failures, and yet Yoon seems to be stuck in the past.
 
I am worried that this presidential race will revolve around populism in the liberal camp and criticism of government policies in the conservative camp. The government’s cash handouts gave the DP a super-majority in the parliament. Populism is effective in dividing the public into friends and foes. But the PPP’s unremitting attacks on government policy fiascoes also could be used to divide the people. If this race goes in that direction, Korea has no hope.
 
In this respect, some mediocre candidates attract our attention. They avoid populist platforms and refrain from the battle over the past. They talk about the future. Regrettably, they aren’t doing well. After preaching about the fourth industrial revolution, Rep. Lee Kwang-jae, a former Gangwon governor, resigned. Kim Dong-won, a former deputy prime minister for economic affairs, also talks about the future together with Rep. Yoon Hee-sook and former Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong.
 
I hope these politicians get more attention. We must not follow in the footsteps of Greece and Venezuela. Though minor in their political stature, the mediocre candidates point to the future by shunning populism and division.
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