Local Governments Are Going Mad with Populism

      March 27, 2020 14:00

      Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung has pledged to give a W100,000 cash voucher to every resident of the province, which will cost taxpayers W1.3 trillion (US$1=W1,229). When the mayor of Bucheon questioned the effectiveness of the plan and stressed it would be better to give W4 million to each cash-strapped small business, Lee threw a hissy fit and threatened to exclude cities and counties that oppose him. This kind of threat was rare even during Korea's military dictatorships. But the governor seems to think that taxpayers' money belongs to him. It is deeply troubling to see how incontinent the governor is, but perhaps he calculated the odds and concluded that the criticism the Bucheon mayor could face from locals if they are excluded from the cash vouchers would balance out his threat.

      The governor is naturally eyeing the presidency as a ruling-party candidate and has been trying very hard to score political brownie points as the general election looms. He led a late-night raid on a church run by the Shincheonji sect which was accused of holding secret prayer meetings and violating quarantine rules as the coronavirus epidemic spread. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was quick to jump on the bandwagon. Park vowed to spearhead coronavirus tests of around 70,000 sect followers but only found two cases. Lee then pledged to send 1.2 million face masks, 10,000 coronavirus diagnosis kits and W1.2 billion worth of disinfectants to North Korea, only to scrap the plans when faced with a hostile reaction here (US$1=W1,229).

      It is quite common for politicians to exploit catastrophic events for political gain, but surely there must be limits. Lee's threat to cut off 830,000 people in Bucheon from the cash vouchers simply because of an opposing voice is definitely going too far. Populist policies may seem to be the norm now, but this is too much.

      Of course the central and local governments need to help low-income families and small businesses that have been hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic. But no country in the world has provincial governments racing against each other to shower money on their citizens. Even Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki has warned that such policies "could be out of synch" with the government's goals. The central government needs to put a stop to this nonsense.

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