[OUTLOOK]Entrenched habits slow reformPoliticians should keep in mind that reforms in political parties, an issue raised last year, is a matter of consequence this year. This is because malfunctioning political parties seem to be at the root of the ills of Korean politics. Political parties are not only organized to gain political power, but also to act as intermediaries among voters, the National Assembly and the administration. Mismanagement of personnel affairs and corruption grew rampant because of their muddy decision-making processes and the concentration of power in the hands of only a few party leaders. The recent series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking officials and politicians were possible because political parties did not keep up with the overall reform of Korean society in implementing transparent and fair decision-making systems.
Why have our politics not evolved? The stagnation can be traced back to the partition of the Korean Peninsula and the outbreak of the Korean War about 50 years ago that, in effect, outlawed ideological diversity.
The reason that Korean politics relies on the charisma and personality of a political leader is found here. The bureaucracy created by the Japanese colonial government somehow survived American military rule and continued in our independent government. Another reason is the suppression of political parties and interest groups by the authoritarian governments. But the direct cause can be found in the authoritarian party system in which the party president wields imperial power through a strong secretariat.
After the confrontation between democracy activists and anti-democracy factions ebbed, appeals to regionalism replaced that confrontation and deprived us of the chance to democratize political parties.
Under authoritarian governments, opposition parties managed to keep the tradition of fair and open contests to select candidates. The Democratic Party selected its presidential candidates for the 1956 and 1971 elections through fair competition and losers accepted their defeat. But when parties based on regional ties emerged, party heads began to have free rein to select nominees. Those party leaders naturally have no reason to give up their power or accept curbs on it just for the sake of reform. Few party members were willing to put their careers at risk by opposing this system. It is hard to criticize some of the young novice politicians who promised in their campaigns to push for reform but ended up being rubber stamps for their political bosses. Nevertheless, some new faces in the ruling party could emerge to revamp the party system because President Kim does not have a free hand to nominate candidates for the next elections. The competition between parties also creates an opportunity to overhaul the system.
In many other countries, reforms were implemented by the political parties that faced bleak prospects; parties that are confident of a victory are not inclined to change their way of doing business. President Kim's decision to resign from the Millennium Democratic Party's presidency after the party's defeat in the October by-elections can be understood in that light.
The kernel of party reforms lies in the abolition of an unrestrained party presidency and the president's free hand to nominate candidates and disburse political funds. But a complete about-face in perceptions should be the premise of reforms. Observing the reform movement's progress in the Millennium Democratic Party, it appears that shedding the rigid party customs established over the past 50 years is more difficult than the president's decision to resign from the party's leadership.
The main task of party reform lies in abolishing one-man rule. It cannot be achieved only by abolishing the party presidency. As long as a political culture in which party members cringe before their superiors is rampant, the party leader will ignore the rules. The talk among ruling party members about selecting a presidential candidate before the local elections in June testifies that the party's way of thinking has not changed. Early selection of a presidential candidate will only change the party leadership from the president to the presidential candidate. Moreover, the people do not want to watch a political battle for the nation's presidency for this entire year. The malfunctioning of our political parties is not because of a lack of leadership, but the lack of a system to check the high-handed rule of party leaders and their lieutenants.
Voters should cast their ballots based on the degree of democratic reform in our parties. It would be wiser to vote for a democratic party instead of expecting a president to root out corruption and end the regional bias in government appointments.
The writer is a professor of political science at Ewha Womans University.
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