[INSIGHT]Needed: simplified election cycle

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[INSIGHT]Needed: simplified election cycle

Every time there is an election, political parties scramble to find ways of differentiating themselves from their opponents. When politics turns nasty and argumentative, you can bet that an election is near.

Reading the political news from the United States, it is clear that an election is coming. The unity after Sept. 11, 2001, is nowhere to be found. The Democrats have started criticizing President George W. Bush's war in Afghanistan as a failure, and Republicans are blaming the Democrats for trying to stall the economic recovery for their own partisan interests. Midterm elections are scheduled for November. One-third of the seats in the Senate and all those in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs. State governors will be elected in 36 of the 50 states.

Attention will shift from public administration to politics. The election system in the United States has more than 200 years of tradition behind it; presidential elections are held every four years; every two years, all the representatives and one-third of the senators are elected. Elections for state governors vary, but usually coincide with federal off-year elections (also called "midterm" elections).

There are almost no special elections to fill vacancies in the Senate or House of Representatives; the governor of the state where a vacancy has occurred usually appoints someone to fill the post until the next election.

Even in a country with a long tradition of elections like the United States, politicians become party-centered and concentrate on winning rather than showing a supra-partisan unity when elections approach. Even in the elections held every two years, political leaders in the United States have been known to show no mercy in bringing down the administration led by the opposition. At the end of 1995 and into early 1996, the U.S. Republicans refused to pass the budget, forcing the Democratic administration to close down government agencies several times. The partisan politics that show up in every election have left many Americans cynical and distrustful of politics. The steady decrease in voter turnout in recent years was a result.

Elections are essential in a democratic society but they have also brought unexpected harm to society.

Watching the political doings of the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democrats is like watching a never-ending battle of political desperation. This is partly due to the elections that keep coming like waves crashing on a shoreline.

Since 1998, when the Kim Dae-jung administration that we called the "government of the people" stepped into power, we have held the 1998 local elections, the 2000 National Assembly elections and the 2002 local elections. New "mini-National Assembly elections" to fill vacant seats in the National Assembly were held yesterday.

There have been other by-elections as well during this administration. They include the 1998 polls in the Jongno district of Seoul, the 1999 by-election in the Songpa district of Seoul where Lee Hoi-Chang bet his political life and the Oct. 25 by-election of last year that led to President Kim Dae-jung relinquishing his leadership of the Millennium Democratic Party.

In all those polls, the ruling and opposition parties were so desperately fighting each other that they forgot to take care of the country. During those election periods, the administration became almost paralyzed.

The next administration will probably also suffer from the paralysis caused by the extremes we have seen in the competition between the ruling and opposition parties during big and small elections. Our country is a country literally "ruled by elections."

The first political reform to break free from such third-rate politics is to boldly shed the election culture that makes politicians bet their lives on winning one. Election reforms are the key to changing Korean politics.

One solution would be to change the constitution so that the presidential election, the National Assembly election, the local elections and whatnot elections can be held all at once every four years so that the president, the National Assembly members and all the other politicians can concentrate on governing the country during the three years when there are no elections.

This is the political reform that we need the most.


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The writer is a professor emeritus at Hanyang University.

by Lee Young-jak

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