Conflicts over free school meals, college tuition fee cut escalate
An identity crisis is deepening at the Grand National Party, after reformists who emphasize greater welfare for the working class took control of the ruling conservative bloc.
On one side, the party’s two new chiefs ― floor leader Rep. Hwang Woo-yea and top policymaker Rep. Lee Ju-young ― are championing a plan to slash college tuitions by half.
On the other, some members are rallying public support to block leftist groups’ plans to provide free school lunches.
“The GNP is confusing us with its policies swinging between left and right,” Rep. Lim Young-ho, a spokesperson for the right-leaning minority Liberty Forward Party, said Tuesday.
Still, the new GNP leaders appear determined to pursue their moves, to restore public support ahead of the general and presidential elections next year.
The conservative party must revamp with centrist reforms in order to win back the hearts of young voters, they believe.
“I will ask the President (to back the idea,) if necessary,” Rep. Hwang said in a meeting with teachers.
“I declare to the public my intention to continue pushing forward the tuition-cut plan in coordination with the government,” Lee said in a meeting of the party leaders earlier in the day.
The party leaders oppose the government’s plan to offer tax cuts to the wealthy, while they are only lukewarm toward the bill to ratify a free trade pact with the United States.
The Presidential Office of Cheong Wa Dae worries that such moves could cause voters confusion that the GNP is changing its political colors and leaning to the left. Welfare and fair distribution have long been key political agendas of leftists, namely the main opposition Democratic Party.
President Lee Myung-bak said in the first official meeting with the new party leaders last week: “At a difficult time like this, the party should try harder to stick to its stance and be consistent.”
Lee, who ran a chaebol company before entering politics, won the presidential election on promises to bolster the economy with tax cuts and deregulation.
Opposition parties criticize that the GNP’s welfare drive is nothing but an election stunt.
“The ruling party has until now denounced our welfare policies as acts of populism,” said Cha Young, the main opposition Democratic Party spokesperson. “We suspect that the GNP’s sudden change of stance may be no more than a pre-election campaign.”
The ruling camp suffered a blow in last month’s by-elections. Its chairman and members of the Supreme Council, its top decision-making body, resigned en masse to take responsibility for the defeat.
Floor leader Hwang and chief policymaker Lee were elected afterwards and will lead the party until it elects a new chairperson and Supreme Council members at a convention in July.
It signaled a shift of power from a larger group of members loyal to President Lee to a smaller, younger and reform-minded faction.
The ideological rift is likely to affect the race for the party’s presidential ticket.
Rep. Park Geun-hye, former party chairman and daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee, is considered a leading candidate for the GNP flag in the 2012 presidential poll. Park, who unveiled last year her vision of the nation’s welfare policy, calling it a “life-cycle tailored” welfare plan, has not yet made her stance clear on the tuition-cut issue.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, another potential presidential candidate of the GNP, is leading a movement to block the controversial free school meal program. He has refused to implement the plan which was passed by the DP-controlled city council.
On Monday, a coalition of rightist civil groups said that more than 420,000 citizens have signed a petition to hold a referendum on the controversial free school meal plan. A referendum can be held when more than 5 percent of the entire eligible voters, about 418,000, request it.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org