The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Populist pledges

Careful review by voters required amid flood of populist promises

By Korea Herald

Published : March 27, 2024 - 05:31

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Lee Jae-myung, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, proposed offering 250,000 won to every South Korean 17 days ahead of the April 10 general election.

Blaming the Yoon Suk Yeol administration for an “economic crisis” and high prices, Lee said Sunday the people’s livelihood needed “CPR,” and suggested offering an average of 1 million won per household in cash vouchers that can be used at local businesses, “like the disaster relief during COVID-19.”

This would cost the government about 13 trillion won, which is “peanuts compared to the Yoon administration’s pledges of projects worth a quadrillion won,” he said during canvassing at a market in Seoul’s Songpa-gu.

In the run-up to the previous general election in 2020, Lee’s party, which was then the ruling party, vowed to offer “1 million won per four-person household” as relief for the pandemic.

By likening the current inflationary situation to four years ago when the economy came to a standstill due to an unprecedented infectious disease, Lee is once again treating voters like they are clueless.

Releasing 13 trillion won into the market would only make inflation worse.

Yoon Hee-suk, an economist and one of the most vocal critics of Lee in the ruling People Power Party, said inflation can only be dealt with high interest rates, and supporting the vulnerable who are hit hardest by the high prices, and resolving bottlenecks in the supply and demand of goods of which the prices rose sharply.

Former Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho said the government would need to issue an additional 13 trillion won worth of bonds to give every South Korean 250,000 won in cash, which would put upward pressure on interest rates. This would increase the financial burden for people who are already suffering from high borrowing rates, he said.

The ruling party is also pouring out sweet promises like free college tuition for families with three or more children, and a review of gradual exemption of college tuition for those with two kids as well. Its lawmakers have vowed costly infrastructure projects including bringing existing railways underground, without detailing how they plan to finance them.

President Yoon has announced dozens of real estate development projects through his “livelihood debate” sessions since January, which opposition parties have constantly criticized as events targeting the elections.

Much of the pork barrel spending will not be feasible, especially given the present state of government finances and how politics has worked in the past.

A civic group’s analysis of over 9,500 campaign pledges in the previous election by 251 lawmakers representing constituencies showed that they fulfilled only about half of them as of late December. The legislators failed to secure a single penny for 28.3 percent of the campaign vows that required spending, the Korea Manifesto Center said.

The tax revenue collected by the South Korean government last year fell a record 56.4 trillion won short of its estimate made in the 2023 budget planning. The government debt surpassed 1.1 quadrillion won for the first time.

With rival parties competing for tempting promises just two weeks ahead of the elections, voters should seek to scrutinize which of the campaign pledges are really necessary for the future of their regions and the country, and which are merely ill-conceived attempts to buy votes.