Anti-polarization is spirit of the times
Korea's past presidential elections showed that winners of the race were candidates who adroitly caught the spirit of the times, often called zeitgeist.
In 1992, Kim Young-sam won the presidential race as he rode high on the public disillusionment after decades of rule by the generals-turned-presidents, including Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. His campaign theme was the termination of military rule. He became the country’s first civilian president since the 1961 military coup.
Kim Dae-jung won the election under the catchphrase of ``the well-prepared President'' in 1997. The election was held as Korea was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in a maelstrom of currency crisis. He became the symbolic figure who realized the peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party to an opposition party.
Roh Moo-hyun became the president on escalating anti-Americanism following the accidental killing of two middle-school girls involving a U.S. military vehicle. His campaign promise of not bowing to the United States received enthusiastic public support. He even favored neutrality if a war broke out between the United States and the communist North Korea. Two-thirds of Internet-savvy young voters stood behind him. His narrow victory came after a battle between old politics and new politics.
In 2007, Lee Myung-bak won the election as the U.S.-originated global financial crisis led Korean voters to choose an economic president. The self-proclaimed pragmatic Lee won by a landslide on the back of conservatives who were disgruntled with what they thought an unprincipled engagement with North Korea. Roh's punitive taxation on home owners also alienated the middle-class voters.
What will be the zeitgeist of the next presidential election in 2012?
Many agree with the view that the next president will be the one best fit for resolving the issue of economic and social polarization between the rich and the poor. Polarization of the Korean society is serious and widespread. The primary cause of the widening income inequality is the rising share of non-regular workers who account for one-third of employees. Temporary staff rose to 26 percent of workers, double the OECD average.
The second cause of the polarization is the high private education expenses, which have negative implications for equality and the nation’s birthrate. Expensive housing prices are also widening income inequality. Old-age poverty is double the OECD average due to a lack of a social safety net, meaning that almost one out of two old people lives in poverty.
Polarization is everywhere. Polarization between Seoul and the rest of the country is palpable. Small and large enterprises, as well as exporters and domestic-oriented companies, have also seen a polarization in performance.
The rural area has been completely marginalized in Korea to the point of defying any comparison with the urban area.
All candidates will know the causes of polarization in Korea. The winner will be the one who provides realistic solutions. There are two ways of easing it. The first option is the pursuit of a pro-growth policy in a move to finance the growing social spending for the needy. Under this method, welfare spending will be made within budget constraints to well-targeted groups. This is a logical approach.
The second approach will be the advocacy of populism-oriented pork-barrel projects, including the halving of college tuition, free school meals, free daycare services and free medical services. This is a remedy that could make Korea a second Greece.
Candidates will be vying to outsmart their rivals in their anti-polarization crusades. Voters will be wise enough to analyze who is rational or irrational. They know too well that the government has limits in spending. Korea is still above the OECD average in government debt to GDP. Korea's government debt has been growing fastest in the OECD area.
The nation's social spending stands at 7.5 percent, well below the OECD average of 20 percent. It has been growing at the fastest rate since 2000, however.
Korea should increase spending on welfare to cushion the negative repercussions of polarization. The nation will undergo a serious social instability without solving the issue.
Easing the polarization will entail a tax increase. Possible options may be the hike of value added tax (VAT). The rate stands at 10 percent, compared with the OECD average of 18.
The worst scenario is the election of the most populist candidate. The occupant of Cheong Wa Dae is unable to put all of his or her sugar-coated campaign commitments into effect.
Korea needs to learn from the current troubles involving Greece, Spain and other eurozone countries. Their decades-old pursuit of the cradle-to-grave welfare programs ate up the state coffers.
Whether Korea will be the next Greece or not, will be largely dependent on the next president. The new head of state will be an anti-polarization crusader who knows the limits of populism. The key question is who will be the candidates. A consensus view is that no serious contender will emerge until after the general elections in April. Even the current leading contenders might disappear after that election.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org