Why TV debates matter
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I will create 810,000 jobs in the public sector,” said presidential candidate Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party (DP) during his campaign in 2017. “It just requires 4 trillion won a year.” Bareun Party candidate Yoo Seong-min attacked the shortcomings of the pledge in every TV debate. Citing the annual salary of an entry-level public servant, Yoo attacked Moon for his wrong projection of the figure. Moon could not refute him properly. “You had better debate this matter with my policy chief,” Moon told Yoo.
If you take a look at employment data from the Moon administration released over the past four years and half, it seems that his campaign promise was realized. Last September, Statistics Korea announced that 671,000 new jobs were created over one year, the largest ever growth.
But the data hides a gloomy reality: the administration only produced low-quality, part-time jobs for the elderly while it is now nearly impossible for economically-active youngsters to find decent jobs. Smart voters probably saw through the truth of the president’s employment policy five years ago, when Moon was struggling in TV debates. In retrospect, his administration’s other controversial policies criticized throughout his presidency — such as real estate measures, a nuclear phase-out decision and minimum wage hikes — were already attacked during the debates. It is regretful that a healthy debate on campaign promises was buried under the huge wave of candlelight protests against the Park Geun-hye government at that time.
In all presidential campaigns since 1987, Korean newspapers pointed out that candidates fail to address the feasibility of their flowery promises. The upcoming presidential election is all about negative campaigning by two major candidates. Still, many voters want to know what their policy pledges are, as evidenced by the public’s keen attention to what was mentioned by candidates in a series of interviews with a YouTube channel devoted to economic affairs. Many viewers said the show has “saved the country.” It was a moment for conventional media to think about what voters truly want.
As TV debates are approaching, presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) has changed his passive attitude toward them. So we expect to see a face-to-face debate between candidates earlier than the official TV debates sponsored by the National Election Commission and scheduled to start in February. Some may wonder if there is the need for such debates because over 70 percent of voters already decided whom to vote for and they have no intention to change their choice. But that is only one side of the story. Loyal supporters won’t be shaken by TV debates, but an outcome of a presidential election is always determined by undecided voters and swing voters. TV debates offer an opportunity for them to help make a decision. Unfortunately, TV debates have failed to play that role in the past.
Despite its ability to create top-tier entertainment, the quality of Korea’s televised political debates has been extremely poor. Sticking with restrictions such as a mechanical balance of allocating the same number of minutes to each candidate and a moderator’s frequent intervention disrupted the flow of a debate and obstructed candidates from having a heated debate. Furthermore, the debates were held among many candidates — not between the top two — effectively distracting viewers. But such technical problems can be solved. The fundamental issue is the level of candidates’ competence and will — not the level of stagecraft. Candidates must meet the expectations of the voters. If anyone avoids a debate, he or she does not deserve votes.
Of course, a presidential election is not a competition to select the most eloquent speaker. Voters can tell who presents the right direction for the country and make a truthful appeal even if he or she may not be so articulate or eloquent. Voters also can see who sugarcoats lies as if they are true and deceives the people. From the perspective of the voters, the March 9 presidential election has degenerated into the choice of a lesser evil, if you will. Nevertheless, it is important to find out who is less evil. If the voters fail to do so, they will elect the worst president ever. That will be a fatal misfortune for the country.