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Politicians fight to score with welfare

Welfare has emerged as a keyword for the 2012 presidential election as the main opposition Democratic Party finalized a package of “universal welfare” pledges as its central campaign strategy on Thursday.

The move came weeks after Rep. Park Geun-hye, the leading presidential hopeful of the ruling Grand National Party by far, suggested what she called “tailored” welfare policies for Koreans: limiting the provision of benefits to the bottom 70 percent of earners.

Now all eyes are on which of the two ― universal or expanded but still limited ― styles of welfare will gain public support.

According to the DP, free child care is the latest add-on to its “free” policies covering school meals and medical services.

Party members agreed to adopt the plan to cover child care costs for 80 percent of families with children under 4 years old, and all families with 5-year-olds. They also decided to push for the “half college fee” project, in which the government subsidizes half of university enrollment fees to all students. 
Democratic Party Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu (right) and floor leader Park Jie-won in conversation during the party’s general meeting in Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap News)
Democratic Party Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu (right) and floor leader Park Jie-won in conversation during the party’s general meeting in Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap News)

“The plans will come into effect gradually to avoid tax shock to people. But by adjusting several structures, we can achieve all,” said DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu.

“Universal welfare is just what we need. We are sure that our financial status is capable of its performance,” he added.

With such policies, the DP seeks to catch up with Park, who garnered more than 40 percent of support at a recent poll.

In local elections in June, the party celebrated a surprise victory against the GNP when it prioritized free school meals in election campaigns. The party is now determined to continue this enthusiasm, insiders said.
Grand National Party Chairman Ahn Sang-soo (right) denounces the opposition party’s free school meal plan during the party’s Supreme Council meeting in Seoul, Thursday.
Grand National Party Chairman Ahn Sang-soo (right) denounces the opposition party’s free school meal plan during the party’s Supreme Council meeting in Seoul, Thursday.

Lee Sang-gu, researcher at the Welfare State Society, said unsversal welfare was quite feasible.

“Welfare should be guaranteed to all people. It would be a great motivation to people to receive equal support from the government,” he said.

The GNP and other conservatives slammed the plan as “cheap populism,” which would fritter away state funds.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, also a GNP member, is now in a struggle against liberal city educational superintendent Kwak No-hyun over the provision of free school meals.

“I will not let populism ruin the city administration,” Oh said. He suggested support for underprivileged children, which the GNP reaffirmed.

Skepticism prevails over the feasibility of both welfare plans.

President Lee Myung-bak recently said: “We have learned through other countries’ cases that welfare populism could easily break down a country’s future and welfare itself.”

Professor Yoon Jong-bin of Chung Ang University said the importance of welfare will grow as more people are attached to the issue. “However, I am concerned that the parties are jumping on the bandwagon without careful consideration of its feasibility,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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