[OUTLOOK]Election Results Keep Politics on Track

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[OUTLOOK]Election Results Keep Politics on Track

All the candidates from the ruling Millennium Democratic Party lost in by-elections for seven heads of local governments on April 26, including four offices in Seoul and the Cholla provinces. A senior Blue House official strongly rejected, however, the opposition party's evaluation that popular discontent toward President Kim Dae-jung's administration caused the election results.

Four days after the elections, an unprecedented thing happened in the plenary session of the National Assembly. Except for some selected representatives, all lawmakers of ruling coalition abstained from a no-confidence vote against the prime minister and the government administration and home affairs minister. Fearing that the no-confidence vote might be carried because of a few defections from the ruling coalition group, the leadership of the ruling bloc decided not to allow less trustworthy legislators to vote.

A series of such incidents reminded me of the political landscape in the last days of Park Chung Hee administration, in 1978 and 1979. The 1978 general election was meant as an evaluation of the first six years of the Yushin (revitalizing reforms) system, a disguised form of martial law. The ruling party saw seven more lawmakers elected from local constituencies than the opposition party, even though the opposition party got over one percent more votes nationwide. We had neither direct presidential or local elections then, and the general elections were the only venue where popular political feeling could be shown, but the results were dismissed by the ruling party. President Park said publicly after the election, "We will have a safe majority at the National Assembly. I think we got as many votes as we expected. The Republican Party [then in power] does not need to worry about the election results. I think we did well."

Such neglect of popular discontent made it impossible to recover popular support. President Park relied on more hard-line options to keep control. There were many such incidents: the ruling party's attempt to select the speaker of the National Assembly from the Yushin Association, coercing an independent legislator to join the ruling party even though he ran as an opposition candidate, police intrusions into opposition headquarters to break up a sit-in and the expulsion of the opposition head from the National Assembly. The ruling party's indifference to its de facto defeat in the general election eventually led to the demise of the Yushin system.

Politicians don't seem to have learned a lesson from history. The ruling party's response after the 2000 general election and the April by-elections worries me. After the 2000 general election gave a majority in the National Assembly to opposition parties, President Kim pledged political cooperation and dialogue, seeming to repent that he had not practiced real politics for the past two years. The pledges have not been kept. The ruling camp besieged the bigger opposition, pulling in minor party lawmakers.

President Kim promised to present a comprehensive plan to assuage the people's discontent at the end of last year. What he put forward was a theory of "strong government" and "strong ruling party."

After the slogans were publicized, they were followed by tax audits and fair trade investigations of the press, stricter regulations on newspaper companies, and the riot police's brutal crackdown on workers of Daewoo Motor. Then the ruling camp was not ashamed to use parliamentary tricks to allow only a small fraction of their legislators to participate in a no-confidence vote against the prime minister right after the crushing defeat in local elections.

History teaches us that a serious situation will result if the people's opinion expressed in elections is ignored. History also teaches us that taking the people's judgement to heart can be an opportunity to turn a misfortune into a blessing. The Korean people have a strong tendency to hold winners in check, especially when the winner shows some arrogance. So if the loser of an election, without holding a grudge, tries to do his best, the people would reward it in the next election. Just look back to 1990, when the ruling party got more than two thirds of the legislative seats by merging three parties, enough to have made revisions to the constitution with no other party's support had they wished to. But in the 1992 elections, the ruling party ended up with not even a majority. It won the presidential election by a relatively big margin in December 1992, but had to deal with a devastating defeat in the local elections of 1995. In the 1996 general election they made big strides, but lost the presidential election in 1997, giving political power to the opposition party, the National Congress for New Politics. The new ruling party merely saved face in the 1998 local election.

By now it should be clear to everybody. The problem is whether to pursue politics based on dialogue and harmony, accepting humbly the people's judgement expressed in the elections. Which way are the ruling and opposition parties walking now? In particular, are the president and the ruling camp correctly reading the people's minds?


The writer is a senior editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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