[The Korea Herald] Has populism taken over politics?

Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, candidates reliably made big promises to the electorate. Accordingly, related concerns about political populism became a major topic of debate within and outside of the political sphere. — John.

By John Power

It’s a charge both the ruling and opposition parties have faced since election season began: Unrealistic campaign promises, with little regard for how to pay for them or their long-term consequences, point to one thing ― populism.

Last month, a group of business organizations including the Federation of Korean Industries released a joint statement cautioning against reckless pledges at election time.

“Campaign pledges should be tailored to reflect the current economic environment facing the country and the government’s fiscal capabilities,” the statement warned.

The Saenuri Party’s list of pledges for the April 11 election includes additional spending of 89 trillion won ($79 billion) on welfare, health and education over the next five years. The opposition Democratic United Party is pledging 164.7 trillion won in similar spending over the same time frame.

A recent “conservative” estimate by the Finance Ministry put the cost of implementing all the two main parties’ pledges at 268 trillion won, considerably above either party’s own estimate.

Other pledges accused of being populist include both parties’ commitment to build an airport in the southeast of the country, the DUP’s vow to abandon nuclear energy and the Saenuri Party’s to quadruple the monthly wage given to military conscripts.

Both the Saenuri Party, headed by Park Geun-hye (upper photo), and the Democratic United Party, headed by Han Myeong-sook (bottom), have been accused of populism in their election promises. (The Korea Herald)

Challenging such perceived electoral pandering with gusto, the Maeil Business, a vernacular daily, even published the so-called Maekyung Populism Index as part of its “monitoring mission against populist policies.”

International attention, too, has honed in on the issue, with a March 7 Wall Street Journal editorial praising Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan for having “the guts to stand up to such economic populism.”

Unsurprisingly, the political establishment has rejected the charges.

“See what the Lee (Myung-bak) government has done as it attacks ‘populism’ on one hand and calls for financial stability on the other? The government and the ruling party cut taxes by around 100 trillion won in the past five years for the rich, spent 30 trillion won on the Four River Project. It is nonsense that they are supporting financial stability,” Park Joo-sun, a lawmaker from the Democratic United Party, told Voice.

Kim Jong-in, a member of the Saenuri Party’s leadership council, in February similarly hit back, calling the Finance Ministry’s intervention in the debate inappropriate and “unprecedented.”

There is a difference, politicians may argue, between reckless populism and listening to the will of the people. Accordingly, what all parties have stressed in this election cycle is a desire for “new” politics that reconnects with the public.

Karl Friedhoff, a program officer at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said that the timing of the sudden drive to ramp up spending inevitably leaves parties open to accusations of populism.

“The timing of it all is the real give away. Nothing in society has changed all that drastically. There were always the poor. There were always the rich. And every year, for the past decade at least, Korea has reached a new level of affluence. So, why this push all of a sudden?” he said.

But pledges to, for example, increase welfare spending shouldn’t automatically be labeled populist, especially, Friedhoff said, as they reflect very real public demand.

“Korea has a weak safety net, that is not in question. Moreover, according to the Asan Institute’s survey, the issue of redistribution has been the second most important, after job creation, for the past twelve months. The issue of redistribution and the economy are clearly linked. There are three measurements for the economy. The first is absolute … The second is relative … The final way is the one less talked about: perceived growth.

“So, people hear that the Korean economy is growing. But when we ask them in our survey about how they feel about their own personal economic well-being, a majority perceive their own economic well-being to be getting worse. And that has been true since we started the poll in January 2011.”

Cho Heung-seek, a politician science professor at Seoul National University, said that populism in Korea politics is nothing new, but is characterized by some distinctly local features.

“I don’t think populism has become a defining feature of this election campaign, rather, I think populism has always existed at election time in Korea … I think Korean politics tends to utilize characteristics that Korean people are rich in emotion,” said Cho.

Korean politics’ entrenched regionalism, too, plays a part, especially when it comes to grand projects such as the plan to build a new airport in the southeast of the country.

“Although Korean politics’ regionalism has gone down in recent years, I think regionalism is still the problem for encouraging big projects in certain areas for political gain,” said Cho.

The revived airport plan, previously an election pledge of President Lee Myung-bak before it was scrapped on economic feasibility grounds in March last year, has an estimated price tag of at least 9.8. trillion won. At present, 11 out of the country’s 14 local airports are loss-makers.

But if populist rhetoric is nothing new, Moon Seung-sook, a Korean-born-and-raised sociology professor at Vassar University in New York State, sees this election as noteworthy for how the debate on populism has been framed.

“The current national assembly election is very much affected by the resignation of Oh Se-hoon, former mayor of Seoul, who ignited the showdown between the ruling party and the opposition party concerning the free school lunch program. The debate was framed as a contest between irresponsible populism and practical considerations by Oh,” said Moon.

Moon, however, doesn’t see populist tendencies as being especially representative of Korean politics, so much as reflecting the failures of representative democracy generally.

“I don’t think Korean politics is particularly susceptible to populism. I see it as a symptom of mass democracy which has failed to deliver democracy and social justice at a deeper and more substantial level. That is, populism is a rhetorical substitute for the real,” she said.

She adds, however, that Koreans may be more sensitive to disparities in wealth than citizens of other countries, giving impetus to party plans to raise taxes on the wealthy and curb chaebol power.

“I see such emphasis as an example of populism in contemporary mass democracy, which we also see a lot here in U.S. politics. If I look hard into the Korean culture and history, Koreans may be more sensitive to inequality and status differences ― than Americans for example ― because of relatively strong nationalism and belief in homogenous ethnicity ― especially among older generations.”

During the campaign for last October’s Seoul mayoral by-election, conservative candidate Na Kyung-won of the Grand National Party, the former name of the Saenuri Party, faced criticism over what were later revealed to be false accusations of lavish spending on skin care. President Lee came in for similarly-themed attacks when his granddaughter was photographed wearing an expensive Moncler band jacket during a family outing with the president.

Widespread dissatisfaction with established politics has surely been fuel for the populist impulse. But such antipathy could find an outlet divorced from party politics entirely, believes Friedhoff. He sees youth disillusionment in particular as potentially transformative ― even more so in the event of a conservative electoral victory.

“Their dissatisfaction is real and it doesn’t really have any outlet. Where that energy will be directed is difficult to say. But, I think if the (Saenuri Party) is somehow able to win a narrow majority, the disappointment and frustration of the youth is going to be more than anyone expected. And again, how that frustration will express itself is anyone’s guess. … It could be in an outward form, i.e. protests. Or it could be a more internal movement, where those in their twenties just see no way to have their voice heard, and effectively give up on the democratic process.”


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