[VIEWPOINT]Primaries only a partial success

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[VIEWPOINT]Primaries only a partial success

The consequences of a new political experiment are coming to light. The ruling Millennium Democratic Party introduced an unprecedented primary election system where electors are party delegates and randomly selected members of the public who then can vote to select the party's nominee for president. The ruling party's experiment seems to be at least partially successful.

Since the kick-off in Jeju island on March 9, the ruling party primary has attracted a great deal of attention from the public, which has grown tired of the same old politics dotted with authoritarianism, "boss politics" and behind-closed-doors maneuvering. After jousting in Jeju, the candidates moved on to other primary elections in Gwangju, Daejeon and Gangwon province. Representative Roh Moo-hyun has been at the center of the new political wind; he has given the ruling party some optimism about being able to hold the presidency for the Millennium Democrats.

It seems to me that the primaries so far have been a half-success and a half-failure. The first reason for the half-success is, ironically, the meltdown of the core circle of the ruling party and the power decentralization that came in its wake. Numerous scandals have debilitated the authoritarian "boss politics," which have given way to new room for democratic principles to perhaps take root.

The second reason for optimism is the people's growing mistrust of conventional politics and anticipation of a new way of doing things. People responded to the new political experiment because they saw a chance that perhaps the old well-trodden road of Korean politics, stuck in a theoretical framework fit only for the era when we were industrializing, was breaking down and being transformed into one that could cope well with the information age.

But we should be cautious not to take too much pride in the positive results of the new experiment. Some mistakenly interpret Mr. Roh's strong run as a sign of civic maturity or the manifestation of people's anticipation of reforms. They are excessively optimistic, and those overblown expectations become more obvious when we examine the reasons for the half-failure.

First, although the elections are called a "popular primary," the elections have been marked by voter apathy. About 20 to 30 percent of the eligible voters have failed to vote. Singling out the randomly selected general public voters, the figure is higher.

There is a strong possibility that certain candidates' followers mobilized people to drive the voting to their advantage, and the organizational prowess of the contenders may have affected the election results.

Second, the real significance of the "popular primaries" was to have been the triumph of policy over mudslinging. But up to now, about halfway through the primaries, what the people have observed has been mainly backbiting and public denunciations. The general public has been given few chances to assess contenders based on their values or policies. Mudslinging is a throwback to "old" politics.

Third, the ghost of regionalism is still around. In Daejeon, Rhee In-je, a native of Chungcheong province of which Daejeon is a part, won 67 percent of votes. In Ulsan, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Joong-kwon, whose hometowns are in the Gyeongsang province where Ulsan is located, together earned 60 percent of votes. Mr. Roh is expected to win more votes in Busan and South Gyeongsang province; he hails from there.

It is not uncommon that candidates draw more support in their hometowns, but contenders are using regional support as the basis of their campaigns. And as four out of the seven original candidates dropped out of the race, allegations of behind-the-scenes conspiracies, money gifts and a revival of regionalism burst out. Even Representative Rhee, who proclaimed that the tide of public opinion is in his favor, was reportedly considering a withdrawal from the primaries. It would be sad if the much-awaited political trial ends with its significance tarnished.

It is time that both parties overcome partisan interests and seek a new direction for political development by analyzing the factors that resulted in only a partial success of the ruling party's "popular" primary elections.


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The writer is a professor of sociology at Kookmin University.

by Bae Kyu-han

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