[INSIGHT]Toward more democratic politics

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[INSIGHT]Toward more democratic politics

It is somewhat startling to see how quickly talks are proceeding within the Millennium Democratic party on how to make its policy-making process more democratic. Suddenly, the urge to democratize has blossomed.

The traditional opposition parties of Korea, to which the MDP can trace its roots, boasted a long tradition of democratic decision making. The former ruling parties - the Liberal Party, the Democratic Republican Party and the Democratic Justice Party - were all under the control of one man. On the other hand, there were factional competitions inside the then-opposition parties such as the Democratic Party, the Minjung Party and the New Democratic Party.

There was stiff competition for leadership positions and for nominations; as a result, many outsiders viewed them as being quarrelsome and disunited. But the opposition tradition of accepting the results of democratically decided contests outweighed in the public's mind the negative image of internal party strife.

During the Syngman Rhee regime, the opposition never succeeded in winning an election, but they did succeed in establishing themselves as a credible alternative to the authoritarian ruling party. The loser, Kim Young-sam, accepted the results of the New Democratic Party nomination process in 1970, when the party nominated Kim Dae-jung as its presidential candidate. Their esteem for democratic systems was their greatest asset, and it enabled them both to achieve their long-cherished dreams of becoming president.

The traditional opposition parties had fair decision making procedures and their support was drawn from all across the nation. That wholesome system fell apart during the presidential election in 1987, when the opposition split and both Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung ran for president as opposition candidates. The present regional political structure - support for President Kim in the Jeolla provinces, for Kim Young-sam in Busan and South Gyeongsang province and Kim Jong-pil with a base in the Chungcheong provinces - was first seen in the 1987 presidential election campaign. Because one leader was connected with a specific region, people in that region voted blindly for that party, and woe be to any politician who fell out of favor with the party's leader.

The "three Kims" endured many hardships during their struggle for democracy, but they also aggravated regional conflict and slowed democratization inside their parties. The negative legacy of the three Kims must be overcome. President Kim's resignation as party head is a start; the opposition will be forced to compete in democratization moves. And those measures are not limited to political parties; they are crucial for democracy in the nation as a whole.

In democratic nations, the main function of a political party is to produce and support able candidates. But if the leader of the party takes full control of nominating candidates, no one is free of the leader's influence. Politicians regard their boss's opinion as more important than the people's opinion. There have been many novice politicians who had good images and credibility at the time they made their political debut, but after a while they turned into men of no substance. Our political climate will not improve under such conditions.

The press and the people are concerned with discussions inside the governing party to transform itself into a democratized party. If all the ruling party presidential hopefuls accept the results of the party's nomination process completely, and if the main opposition Grand National Party, which is only one vote shy of a majority in the legislature, does not follow with democratization steps of its own, the face of the 2002 elections could change completely. The degree of democracy in a party is important in evaluating its candidate's capabilities and can be a political advantage.

It would be better if an "open" candidate selection process allowed citizens other than party members to participate in selecting the party's presidential nominee. Instead of restricting the participation of nonparty members to 30 percent, as the MDP is tentatively planning, increasing the voice of outsiders even more would be popular with the people. Each party has a free hand to decide upon the details of its plan, but both parties will get more public support if they allow more mass participation in choosing candidates.

In the long run, primary elections should be introduced for all positions. As a first step, the party rank-and-file should nominate local election candidates next year. Party democracy invigorates politics, spurs wider democratization and maximizes the competitiveness of the parties in the presidential elections.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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