The newly elected five leaders of the ruling Grand National Party will hold a workshop tomorrow with key members of the party’s policymaking team to discuss how they would promote policies aimed at improving the livelihoods of ordinary people.
The meeting is timely as confusion over the party’s welfare policies has escalated following the inauguration of the new leadership on July 4. But whether the new leaders will be able to wipe out the confusion and bridge the widening gap between their party and the government remains to be seen.
The GNP began to fall into disarray in May when it elected Rep. Hwang Woo-yea as its new floor leader. In an abrupt departure from the party line, Hwang declared he would push for a sharp cut in college tuition fees, taking a leaf out of the main opposition Democratic Party’s playbook. Hwang’s proposal created cracks in GNP’s relationship with the administration, which initially opposed the idea but later partially embraced it.
Some of the party’s new leaders, including Rep. Hong Joon-pyo who was elected as the new chairman, fueled the confusion by putting forward welfare schemes that would push the party further left.
For instance, Hong said he would promote an agency in charge of child care and expand the government’s child care program, which currently provides subsidies to the bottom 70 percent of families, to cover all families by 2014. This proposal sounds like the universal welfare program pursued by the DP.
Rep. Yoo Seung-min, who won the second-most votes in the leadership contest, made even more radical proposals. He made clear his opposition to the controversial referendum on free school lunches, a project pushed by Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon to put the brakes on what he sees as a rising tide of welfare populism. Yoo also called for measures to eliminate discrimination against non-regular workers.
Thus the new leadership has floated ideas that not only deviate widely from the GNP’s existing platform but differ from the plans being pushed by floor leader Hwang. Confusion is heightened as the new leaders’ proposals conflict with each other.
Hence the first challenge facing the new GNP leadership is to thrash out their differences on the controversial welfare issues, including how to cut college tuition fees and whether to cut taxes as planned for big businesses and households in the top income bracket.
This challenge alone is formidable, given the idiosyncrasies of the leaders, especially chairman Hong, who is something of a maverick known for his sharp tongue and stubbornness. If he insists on his own reform agenda, the new leadership will be thrown into the same kind of disarray that plagued the previous executive council.
To avoid such a scenario, Hong should be more willing to accommodate the views of the other council members. If he does, the new leadership will be able to speak with one voice on key issues, which would in turn strengthen the party’s position in policy consultations with the administration.
Even so, the GNP is likely to face difficulty in persuading the administration to bring its policies in line with the party’s. The administration is wary of a surge in welfare spending. For instance, Minister of Strategy and Finance Bahk Jae-wan has repeatedly said since his appointment in early June that he would fight against welfare populism. On Wednesday he again stressed the need to establish fiscal discipline in the face of pressures for spending on pork barrel projects.
In response, the new GNP leaders argue that it is time to change the party-government relationship. Thus far, the party has served as a rubber stamp for the government. But from now on, they say, the party should take the driver’s seat.
For this, however, the party should go further than simply putting forward welfare proposals aimed at pandering to voters. To lead the administration, it needs to present a convincing vision of the nation’s future and a core set of values that people can respect.
In this regard, the planned Sunday debate should be an occasion for the GNP’s key officials to search for the values in which their reformed party will be anchored. A political party not founded on a sound philosophy is nothing more than a house of cards.