Both advocates and detractors may scratch their heads while trying to understand where the ruling Grand National Party is headed. Given the new policies that have been adopted or proposed for adoption, they have good reason to wonder if it is the same party it was before ― a bona fide conservative force.
The ruling party has been pro-business and anti-communism. As such, it has pushed for a tax cut and had reservations about expanding welfare programs, providing aid for North Korea and promoting inter-Korean dialogue.
It sets itself apart from U.S. or British conservative parties when it comes to intervention in the market. It believes that the government should actively intervene in the market if it will help businesses.
But its conservative platform is challenged as it is being pressured to change course and adopt policies similar to those of the main opposition Democratic Party. The demand for reversal is most notable in welfare.
Generally speaking, rival parties, initially far apart on the ideological spectrum, move toward the center as they copy each other’s policies. But they do so with caution and reluctance even when a policy in question is deemed overwhelmingly appealing to the electorate. After all, it is not easy for them to abandon their core values. As such, transition is slow.
As a leading reformist lawmaker from the ruling party rightly puts it, it needs to make changes as demanded by the electorate. Otherwise, he says, the party cannot win the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year.
But the question is to what extent and at what speed. The party runs the risk of alienating its conservative power base if it goes too far and too fast. If the change it is pursuing is deemed too little and too late, however, reform-minded supporters will jump ship when elections come around.
The party must strike a balance between the two. But the change being pursued is so abrupt and so far-reaching that one wonders if the ruling party is more liberal in certain areas than the opposition party. The ruling party is experiencing an identity crisis as a reformist group takes on the old guard to push its own agenda.
The intra-party conflict has been intensifying since the ruling party lost the April parliamentary and provincial by-elections to the main opposition party, which has been relentlessly promoting its welfare agenda, including the provision of free school lunches. A case in point is the ongoing debate on the reformist proposal to halve university tuition.
In a normal process, the party’s policymaking committee would accept a policy initiative, craft it into a policy proposal and make it an official policy after consultations with the administration. A key question in this process would be how to finance it.
But the party’s new floor leader, Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, made a shortcut and committed himself to cutting university tuition by half. Now the question is where the money, estimated at 5.5 trillion won to 6 trillion won each year, would come from.
The tuition cut is not the only proposed largesse. Another costly welfare proposal is the provision of free kindergarten education for 5-year-olds. Here again, there is no mention of how to finance the program.
No less irresponsible is President Lee Myung-bak’s administration, which demands that business conglomerates share their “excess profits” with their suppliers. The Center for Free Enterprise, a think tank for big businesses, accuses the Lee administration of being “more leftist than the leftist Roh Moo-hyun administration.”
Is it making the mistake of neglecting its “domestic rabbit” in a futile attempt to catch a “mountain hare,” as conservative supporters claim? It may as well heed their threat to withdraw support.