Government must be neutral, mind its own business
Unwarranted meddling in elections by government employees is a grave offense. One needs to look no further than the late former President Roh Moo-hyun, who was on the verge of impeachment by asking for voter support for the ruling party lawmakers.
So it’s only natural the National Election Commission warned the Finance Ministry Thursday against unlawful intervention in the April 11 parliamentary polls by criticizing major parties’ welfare pledges. The election watchdog, often accused of siding with the party in power, did its bit for the first time in many years.
Ministry officials, while grudgingly accepting the NEC’s rebuke, appear discontent at heart, refuting they didn’t take issue with any pledges by specific parties or candidates. That is a shallow excuse, indeed.
In a report, the ministry said it would take a hefty 268 trillion won ($238 billion) over the next five years to implement all welfare promises by the ruling Saenuri Party and main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP). That sparked outcries from conservative media about ``welfare populism” and put the DUP at a relative disadvantage, as it calls for universal welfare policy compared with Saenuri’s selected welfare.
Think just one moment and one can see the report’s intent: How can both the ruling and opposition parties put their pledges into action unless they form a coalition government? Ever since Minister Bahk Jae-wan, a former chief economic aide to President Lee Myung-bak, activated a ``welfare (-bashing) task force” at the behest of his boss a few months ago, it has been apparent what this administration has in mind ― attack advocators of public welfare and defend its neo-liberalist policy.
Voters might as well think this reflects the government’s concerns about the nation’s fiscal health. Yet President Lee and Minister Bahk ― who swelled the state debt by more than 100 trillion won in just three years by giving dozens of trillions of won in tax cuts to big businesses and wealthy individuals and pouring a similar amount into the nation’s four largest rivers ― should be the last ones to preach fiscal responsibility. No less egregious is their criticism of better social safety net, as most working Koreans say they are far worse off than four years ago.
No one can overemphasize the importance of deficit cuts and a cautious approach to government debts. Yet taxation is as important as, if not more so, spending. The finance ministry should focus on increasing revenue by reforming the nation’s tax system in more reasonable and equitable ways instead of caviling at election promises. Moreover, Korea’s welfare spending out of its GDP is still less than half of the OECD’s average. In this country, too little ― not too much ― welfare is the problem.
Ministry officials say their efforts are to help voters make the right decisions. These elite bureaucrats must know in this era of overflowing information, the general public often knows far better than experts offering a limited scope.
Even if voters make misjudgments, they will have to pay the price for it. That’s democracy. And that’s exactly what Korean voters have been doing the past four years.