The constant revisions to the government’s pledges to support cash-strapped citizens show how an election can end up costing the public an arm and a leg in the long term. The plan designed by the Ministry of Economy and Finance aims to cover half of the population, but then the ruling party sought to woo more voters by expanding financial support to W1 million each for the bottom 70 percent of the income bracket (US$1=W1,218). The conservative opposition party, which should have stopped this nonsense, upped the ante instead by offering every citizen half a million won instead. Sure enough, the head of the ruling party agreed without even consulting the government. This is a familiar tactic in poker games, but if the government really pays W500,000 to 51 million Koreans, the bill will total a staggering W25 trillion. Who will end up paying for it? The very taxpayers who are supposedly benefiting.
Elections are an essential part of a democratic society, but the taint of populism is a very real danger. Few citizens would turn down an offer to reduce responsibilities and get more money. Greece, once a fiscally sound European country, ended up broke after an election due to the populist policies of former prime minister George Papandreou, who pledged to “give everything the public wants,” which prompted the opposition camp to match his offer. New pensions were created during every election season, resulting in more than 150 national pension funds at one time. Argentina also fell victim to populism during elections. And now, even the ruling party there, which had been opposed to the Peronist movement, is offering populist policies.
In Korea, populism has only intensified since then–presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun proposed in 2002 to relocate the capital. Welfare benefits for the elderly doubled since the 2012 presidential election and increased another 25 percent in 2017. Now, the Minjoo Party wants to raise them by another 20 percent. There were predictions that the payments would rise by W100,000 every election, and this seems to be coming true. Free school meals, 50 percent tuition discounts, free childcare and childcare subsidies were all reckless election pledges.
The mandatory military service period has decreased after every election. One opposition presidential candidate pledged to shorten the draft period to 18 months in the 2012 election, and another candidate from the ruling party followed suit. In the last presidential election, candidates vied with each other to shorten it to 12 months and even 10 months.
To stop this vicious cycle, Koreans must to refuse to accept populist pledges, because they will be the ones picking up the tab in the end.
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