Populism and grievances
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.
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.