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DP debate format leaves little room for exchange

Mar 30,2017
Two minutes was all the time the Democratic Party’s presidential contenders spent addressing the country’s dire low birth rate problem in all party debates, out of 600 minutes total. Until Tuesday, the Democratic Party (DP) held six debates among its four presidential hopefuls during the course of the campaign. Each debate lasted about 100 minutes on average.

While the country is facing an existential problem stemming from one of the world’s lowest birth rates, 1.17 per woman on average last year according to Statistics Korea, the four candidates only spent two minutes debating how to address the problem.

For job creation, less than 30 minutes were spent addressing the issue. While frontrunner Moon Jae-in was attacked by other contenders for his promise to create 810,000 new jobs in the public sector, there followed no in-depth analysis of his policy, or related proposals floated by other contenders.

Political observers point out that the party’s debate format fails to provide voters details regarding contenders’ policy proposals.

One main problem is that instead of having contenders freely question others’ policy positions, the party is using a rigid manuscript-based debate style.

One example of this would be Moon’s debate session with Goyang Mayor Choi Sung on government policy for patients with dementia, held during the party’s sixth debate on March 21.

“I believe the state should be the care provider for dementia patients and I will set up related hospitals and care centers across the country funded by the central and local governments. Do you agree with such a policy approach,” Moon asked Choi.

Choi, who lags far behind the three DP contenders, concurred with Moon, saying the central government should be in charge of such a policy. For the next four minutes, the two exchanged what appeared to be a series of compliments for each other’s policies instead of critically examining the other’s views.

Over the course of the DP’s six debates, similar situations unfolded as debaters would roll out manuscript answers or policy positions without touching on policy differences among rivals.

The current DP’s debate format consists of four categories: A one-minute self-introduction, a 90-second discussion on a given topic for each candidate, a 10-minute free debate for each candidate and a 30-second closing remark.

Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung has gone so far as to say the current DP debate format was no different from reading one’s policy position straight from a manuscript.

“The current debate format allows contenders to fine tune their responses before the debate,” said Ka Sang-joon, professor of political science at Dankook University. “We need to have those outside the presidential contest take part in the examination process to throw unexpected questions at debaters and bring about real, impromptu responses.”

Experts also note that parties should limit the range of issues to be addressed in a single debate. Under the current format, the DP debate rolls out a number of issues from the deployment of the U.S.-led antimissile system and constitutional amendment to the notion of a coalition with conservatives, making it hard for candidates to focus on one issue in-depth.

“Waging a serious and in-depth analysis into other candidates’ policy positions is hard when a single debate covers all political and social issues at once,” said Uhm Tae-seok, professor of administrative studies at Seowon University in Cheongju. “If the debate format limited the number of policy issues to two, it will solve the current debate problem.”

Viewership for the DP’s debate plummeted to 1.8 percent last Wednesday when its sixth debate was broadcast by MBC, down from 5.9 percent three days earlier for its fifth debate.

“The contenders repeat their positions,” said Shin Kyoung-min, a journalist-turned-lawmaker who is in the Moon campaign, “and as there is nothing new for the press to cover, reporters focus on negative campaigning in a vicious cycle. The time has come to completely overhaul the current debate system rather than point fingers at presidential runners.”

BY KANG TAE-HWA, AN HYO-SEONG [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]