Buying votes with moneyThe ruling Democratic Party (DP) unilaterally held a special session early Saturday morning and passed a 14-trillion-won ($11.7 billion) supplementary budget bill proposed by the government. Three million won will be handed out to each small business owner to help them battle through the Covid-19 pandemic. The DP has just added to the proposed amount an extra 3.5 trillion won to help people buy coronavirus test kits, treat themselves at home and aid freelancers. The ruling party plans to pass the revised bill in a plenary session on Monday at the National Assembly.
If the supplementary budget bill is passed in the legislature, the money will be doled out by the end of February or early March. The day for the payout will likely be March 4 or 5, just a few days before the March 9 presidential election. Handing out cash shortly before the election is the same as buying votes with money. The DP won a landslide victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections in 2020 by promising universal disaster relief shortly before the election. (The party took nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly.)
President Moon Jae-in has joined the move. In a meeting on Friday with his aides, he requested the National Assembly pass a supplementary budget bill quickly to “relieve the deepening pain of the people” suffering from the pandemic. After Hong Nam-ki, deputy prime minister for economic affairs and finance minister, hesitated to increase the size of the supplementary budget citing concerns on fluctuating interest rates of government bonds and the Ukrainian crisis, DP lawmakers threatened to dismiss him immediately. There is no reason to oppose financial support for the struggling self-employed. Their frequent rallies to express opposition to the draconian quarantine rules are fully understandable. But on Sunday, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance announced that the consolidated fiscal balance has recorded more than 100 trillion won in deficit over the past two years. In the meantime, total national debt swelled to 939.1 trillion won last year, a whopping 245-trillion-won spike from before the pandemic. The ruling camp’s swift move to draw up another supplementary budget is begging for votes from the 6 million-strong self-employed.
The one-sided passing of the supplementary budget has procedural problems, too. The DP claimed that Rep. Lee Jong-bae, chairman of the Budget Settlement Committee, had refused to accept the DP’s call for a special session. But the opposition People Power Party (PPP) declared the session null and void because it is not a legitimate meeting stipulated by law. Yet the PPP can hardly find fault with the railroading of the budget bill by the DP because the PPP also proposed a supplementary budget amounting to 50 trillion won earlier. The two parties’ heated race for spending more amid the pandemic calls for hundreds of trillion won. Both parties must think about fiscal affordability before resorting to a spending splurge.