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Candles seem no match for politics

Oct 06,2018
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Protesters hold candlelights at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul in Nov. 19, 2016, to call for the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye because of corruption charges. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
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Jaung Hoon
The author is a political science professor at Chung-Ang University and a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In Korean politics, two years is a long time. Two years ago, people gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza and demanded that democratic politics answer to them. Since then, how have our democratic politics evolved toward the direction of answering to the people?

Today, the people want a democracy of cooperation and balance, but politics in Yeouido, western Seoul, still remains in the world of obsolete confrontation. It is embarrassing to call a series of exposures by an opposition lawmaker and the Blue House’s counterattack an example of the checks and balances of democratic politics. The appointment of Yoo Eun-hae as the deputy prime minister for social affairs shows that cooperation between the administration and the legislature is a tough circus.

The conflict between the main opposition party and the Blue House is also leading to a conflict between their passionate supporters. In cyberspace, mockery and criticism of Rep. Shim Jae-chul of the opposition Liberty Korea Party is easily found. On the other side, concerns are mounting that the government may not be properly spending precious tax money. Enthusiastic supporters of the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Liberty Korea Party are experiencing an adrenaline rush, but most of the people are increasingly disappointed.

Political scientists have either cynically criticized Korean politics, which is concentrated on conflicts rather than cooperation, or have safely and gently lectured us by citing examples of advanced democracies that have been searching for resolutions to factional conflicts. Readers, although they know that the criticism by scholars is nothing new, probably felt relieved. Or some readers may have felt envy, helpless or foreign when they watched the examples of advanced democracies.

I, however, do not agree with the argument that the high tendency for conflict in our politics is a part of our history or because of our peculiar culture. Instead, I think it is an outcome that flows from our negligence in creating a systemic infrastructure of cooperative politics over the past 30 years of democratization, particularly since the 2016 candlelight protests. In other words, I believe that conflicts between politicians can grow larger or shrink smaller depending on the design direction of a system.

As of now, the political parties and election systems are designed to make politicians react more to party leaders and passionate supporters rather than to the general public. The noble value of cooperative politics and balance is not something unheard of by leaders and passionate supporters. Therefore, lawmakers are putting their efforts into strengthening the unity of their parties and to win a power struggle between political parties, rather than paying attention to the general public’s responses.

Only when we design a political system that forces the lawmakers to react more sensitively to the demands of the general public can the extreme political fights end. The U.S. Congress is less split than our National Assembly, not because the American lawmakers are smarter or better politicians. It is because the American political parties are highly open to the general public and their powers are divided.

There are many proposals to change the current system. It has been argued many time that the open primary elections for the general public must become a mandatory part of selecting a candidate for a constituency in order to rescue the lawmakers from combatant supporters’ pressures. I also proposed in July, through a column in this newspaper, that the candidates for proportional representatives should be selected solely from the ranks of women and youthful contenders. Introducing recall elections can also change politicians.

In the end, the issue is who will bell the cat. One plan is that the National Assembly speaker, Moon Hee-sang will create a political reform council for the citizens, participated in by civic society. No one expects that the National Assembly’s Political Reform Special Committee will actually agree on a meaningful reform of the system before the end of next spring. We must remember the past; in 2003 and 2004, for example, when Speaker Park Kwan-yong pressured the special committee with a reform draft created by a political reform council participated in by civic groups, experts and the National Election Commission, and that served as the foundation of efforts to overhaul the system in 2004.

The people have demanded that democracy must answer to them, and a new administration was launched. And yet, two years have passed since then without any progress in reforming the system. After the people left Gwanghwamun Plaza to resume living their lives, the ruling and opposition parties are just repeating their old ways of politics.

The people who took their protests to the streets two years ago to defend democracy are now looking at Yeouido, wondering where the candlelights are and if they should gather at Yeouido Park.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 5, Page 31