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[Reporter's Notebook] Election's about the future, but campaigns are focused on the past

Pledges and vows thrown to the wayside as candidates dredge up allegations against each other

Banners of four major candidates for the 20th presidential election are hung by a sidewalk in Gwanak-gu, southern Seoul, on Feb. 15. (Yonhap)
Banners of four major candidates for the 20th presidential election are hung by a sidewalk in Gwanak-gu, southern Seoul, on Feb. 15. (Yonhap)
South Koreans to this day have directly elected seven presidents to lead the country and are on course to vote for their eighth leader next month.

Since direct elections began in 1987, every presidential candidate has carried slogans and signature policy aims to win support while outlining his or her vision. However outlandish or vain they may be, these promises have carried considerable weight in swaying voters.

So it would not be unreasonable to expect policy to take center stage in debates among candidates and discussions among voters.

Yet that certainly is not the case in 2022. So far the four major candidates have made pledge after pledge over the past several months, and press conferences and rallies were held to publicize them. But voters have been focused on other things.

Officials from each camp seem to have concentrated much of their effort on scandals, allegations and misdemeanors about rival candidates.

Most of the rhetoric from each camp has focused on what happened yesterday, last month, last year or even years ago, with denunciations and mockery of other candidates, their spouses and supporters.

Televised debates, intended as a window into each candidate's vision, have degenerated into a war of words. Candidates used much of their allotted time to denounce one another.

Politicians in opposing camps have even engaged in online battles over issues as nonsensical as whether dogs support a particular candidate. The result is a constant back-and-forth between candidates and their aides, demanding apologies and answers to newly uncovered dirt.

Public discourse has been reduced to which of the candidates is the least bad option, or which of them has a cleaner track record. There is little opportunity for voters to learn the implications of the candidates' political road maps and what they could mean for the voters and those they care about.

Granted, many voters are already aware that pledges and promises made during the campaign don’t mean so much after the winner is announced.

Records show that past presidents did not even come close to fulfilling large parts of their manifestos. Grand visions shrank in size, and circumstantial changes meant having to go back to the drawing board, even before work could start on the plans.

Most presidential candidates have vowed to boost the country's sagging birthrate, improve welfare, tackle the growing socioeconomic gap and bring gender equality.

A brief look at where South Korea is today already makes it clear these promises have fallen apart. South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, and people struggle financially amid rising food and housing prices.

Hatred has burgeoned between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and so has the animosity between men and women over benefits and privileges. This has gotten to the point where the term "feminism" itself has become a hot-button issue in South Korea.

And by the time of the next presidential election, many voters were left largely unsatisfied with the president in power, however grand his or her vision might have been.

That's why past presidents have spent most of the years following their terms under investigation and even on trial.

Yet voters are still entitled to know what policies from what candidates they can get behind in promoting better lives for themselves.

Whether it be universal basic income, a happiness-centered economy, rigorous investment in scientific endeavors or a discrimination-free society, these visions must be embedded deep in the minds of voters before they head to the polls. The choice is up to them, but they must be informed beforehand.

They must be provided with time and resources to make sure they fully understand the visions and promises laid before them. The energy campaign officials use to denounce and mock others could instead be used to further explain the key views of candidates.

Perhaps it's too late now. With just 15 days left until polling day, most voters have already made up their minds who to pick on March 9. It may be more realistic to hope for improvements at the next election.

Yet it is better late than never to stop the mudslinging and promote policy-centered debates and campaign rallies. The election is a nationwide festival, and that festival has to be decorated with visions and pledges as opposed to accusations and insults.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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