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Of the people, by the people

It is an outdated idea to limit direct democracy to a city state.
Sept 07,2017
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[KIM HOE-RYONG]
“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

He cynically exposed the reality of British representative politics, which had been considered an ideal model. He saw through the limits of the representative system. His insight applies to today’s situation as well, not just for the U.K., but for all countries. Korea’s representative system is facing a serious crisis.

So it is relevant that President Moon Jae-in mentioned direct democracy. He is completely right to say, “People are not satisfied with indirect democracy. As a result, Korean politics is backward. People call for direct democracy of expressing political opinions with candlelight and make proposals through online posts.” Of course, the president has a hopeful intention to use the national support to overcome the limits of a ruling party that does not hold a majority.

The opposition made unfair attacks on this remark as “dismissing the National Assembly” or “denying representative democracy.” It is pathetic for the biggest opposition party to mention “the president bypassing the National Assembly” when it began the session with a boycott even during the North Korean nuclear crisis. In fact, direct democracy is not a denial of representative democracy, but a necessary supplement.

To tell the truth, the Korean political system cannot be called representative democracy. In representative democracy, the delegates elected by the people should represent the will of the people and realize their sovereignty. What Korea has today is simply a representative system. The representatives had only followed the will of the person in power and allowed former President Park Geun-hye to abuse power and infringe the Constitution. The people held up the candlelight, Park has been impeached, and a new president has been elected. But the representatives don’t seem to be missing anything as three years are left in their terms.

It is too late to regret the wrong choices, and not much will change by voting for others three years later. The party leaders dominate candidates’ nominations, and the choice of the voters is often narrowed down to approving or disapproving the nomination. It is obvious who such a lawmaker will be faithful to. Not so long ago, a shamelessly named Pro-Park Alliance was created and someone who went against the party leadership to listen to the voters was called a traitor and did not get the party’s nomination. The reform committee would openly make “strategic nominations” as a part of the reform.

In this situation, the legislation process becomes a formality. A few party leaders set major policies and bills, and the lawmakers table bills that benefit their interests rather than the will of the people. Even a bill to postpone taxation on religion-related earnings is proposed when the public’s support is clear and the government has long been prepared for it.

It has become clear that the president has a point and Rousseau’s saying is the truth. The alternative option is direct democracy. We can clear up a few misunderstandings. Direct democracy is often denied for three reasons: it could incapacitate the representative system, it only works in a city state like ancient Greece and it could become mobocracy.

As already discussed, direct democracy does not replace but supplements the representative system. Switzerland has a successful model of direct democracy, and 90 percent of the bills are passed by the National Assembly. When the National Assembly enacts laws against the will of the people, citizens can deny them through referenda, and citizens can directly propose a bill when the lawmakers fail to make laws the people demand. This invests more responsibilities in the National Assembly. The National Assembly and the citizens become healthy rivals and complete democracy together.

It is an outdated idea to limit direct democracy to a city state. Today, voters don’t need to get together. The information technology unimaginable a century ago enables online forums and online voting to take place freely. Lawmakers and parties competing against the people will try to provide as much information on current issues as possible to persuade the voters. This is political reform.

We have experienced the politics of arrogance by the political elites who go against the people, and it is more frightening than mobocracy. We need properly installed direct democracy to prevent the arrogant dominance of the elites. For example, a typical plebiscite like Article 128 of the Constitution, “A proposal to amend the Constitution shall be introduced either by a majority of the total members of the National Assembly or by the president,” must be eliminated. Since Park Chung Hee’s Yusin Constitution replaced “people” with “president,” the article has been a notorious case of unjust law. The power should be returned to the people, the original owner.

Rousseau did not use the term direct democracy. But the people’s sovereignty can only be attained by securing freedom through participation. To realize popular sovereignty, direct democracy is the future.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 6, Page 32

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Hoon-beom