Parties to lock horns over state budget, UAE troop dispatch

November 14, 2010 2:34 pm 

SEOUL, Nov. 14 — Political parties begin their debate over the government-proposed 2011 budget this week, with a horde of domestic and diplomatic issues adding further uncertainty to the prospect of a necessary compromise.

The major issue at stake is the government's push to set aside a large amount of money for its four-river refurbishment project, a chunk of which is sought by the opposition parties to be diverted to welfare and education.

The budget debate is expected to be further complicated by other sensitive issues like constitutional revision and the planned troop dispatch to the United Arab Emirates.

The Lee Myung-bak government has proposed a 309.6 trillion won budget (US$ 274.5 billion) for 2011, for which the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) has pledged its staunch support, calling it "pro-working class and pro-welfare."

The state pushes to allocate 9.6 trillion won for its flagship project to refurbish the Han, Nakdong, Geumgang and Yeongsan rivers as measures for flood control and to enhance water quality.

The ruling party has asserted it will make no compromise on the river project, saying it will be picking up public support as construction moves forward improving water quality and visually enhancing the river environs.

"The GNP will scrupulously review the government's budget for the sake of the working class, the financial health of the government and the implementation of state agenda," Chung Ok-nim, a spokeswoman for the GNP, said. "But we will sternly counter any political offensive the opposition will try to make under the name of the four-river project and we will make our best efforts to make sure that sizable budgets are allocated for children and childcare."

The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) demands a 30-percent cut to the river project, citing low public support as reflected in polls.

They argue the money instead should go to welfare and education, such as providing free school meals, which was the party's June by-election pledge or supporting university tuition fees and supplying fuel to senior centers.

The ruling party refutes that the current budget already has the largest ever portion of welfare, 28 percent of the total, in history.

The GNP also argues that free school meals should not be supported by state coffers but be subject to an autonomous decision by local government authorities.

"In its self-righteous attitude, the government is ignoring the voice of the people and the opposition parties, insisting only on the four-river project," Jun Byung-hun, chair of DP's policy committee, said. "The GNP should be more flexible and listen to the demands of the people and the oppositions."

The main opposition argues part of the budget for the river project can be saved by reducing the construction of basins and bicycle roads around the refurbishment areas. It also calls for the withdrawal of the government's push for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the GNP is poised to launch debate on the revision of the nation's Constitution, which has been put on hold until the economic forum of the Group of 20 nations, which was held last week.

"Now that the G-20 summit is over, we have to start discussions on constitutional revision," the party chairman Ahn Sang-soo said over the telephone. "Various public surveys suggest it's a major opinion that the Constitution should be revised."

In his Aug. 15 Liberation Day speech, Lee demanded political parities initiate full-scale discussions on the revision of the Constitution and a change in the electoral system.

Parties have off and on raised the need to amend the Constitution, last revised in 1987, which limits a president to a single five-year term to prevent long-term rule by one leader as experienced during past authoritarian regimes in the country. Advocates of the revision say the limit creates a presidential "lame duck" syndrome in which the president's authority weakens in the latter half of the term as the power center shifts to the next administration.

But the move for revision faces opposition within the ruling party, namely its major faction led by Park Geun-hye, the president's in-house rival.

The DP is not about to comply, either. Party chairman Sohn Hak-kyu has dubbed the ruling party's suggestion of constitutional revision a "political game for politicians."

Diplomatic issues are expected to add further uncertainty to next week's debate. Democrats have made it clear they will vote down the government's move to send a battalion of combat troops to the United Arab Emirates, citing safety concerns.

The government plans to send about 130 special operations forces to the UAE by the end of this year, a move it says will boost South Korea's military ties with the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation. (PNA/Yonhap)

LDV/rsm

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