[FORUM]Politicians drone, voters tune outPoliticians sometimes complain that Koreans are not mature enough to debate each other substantively, but this complaint is like the pot calling the kettle black. Assembly members from both the Grand National Party and Millennium Democratic Party rejected a proposed bill to begin a "question time" system in the Assembly, where members could debate issues of the day.
Members agreed that questions and answers would be good for criticizing and coming up with alternatives to government policy, and would be a good rein on the administration. But politicians seem to be reluctant to expose their own ignorance about current affairs in such an open forum.
Questions posed by assemblymen are really political speeches, filled with attacks and rumors about their opposite numbers. People have complained that the intent in such speeches is mainly to flatter the head of the orator's party. We can understand the distress of Park Kwan-yong, the speaker of the National Assembly, who proposed a questioning format change because of the unsophisticated debates of our lawmakers. A more developed form of argument, posing questions and giving responses, would meet the people's need to control the government and to learn about government policies. But our politicians are afraid of the format.
Presidential candidates are avoiding democratic arguments, especially on television. They come across as boring and monotonous; their responses to questions are stereotypes of empty talk that avoids the issues.
Television debates are more important now than ever because the MDP's Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon from National Alliance 21 have proposed a televised debate before selecting a single candidate to oppose Lee Hoi-chang of the GNP. Attracting more people to these televised arguments could be the key for attracting more voters to the polls.
Presidential debates drew only a 5-percent audience share in recent polls. The audience was simply not interested because politicians and broadcasters underrated the intellectual level of viewers. Koreans are well known for enjoying the Internet more than any other people on the planet. People here also love to read newspapers thoroughly, but just said "no" to the television debates. The reason is simple: the audience was fed up with the same appetizers and main dishes that politicians offer at every meal. Campaign managers do not understand yet that the people want a more varied diet.
Presidential debates on television should also be conducted in question and answer format. Through such debate, fresh and substantive promises will be applauded and absurd ones wrapped in gilded packages will be criticized.
Listed companies on the stock market are required to disclose their financial status to protect investors. Voters should have the right to know whether promises can be kept and whether candidates can integrate their individual pledges into a coherent governing platform.
Arguments made by candidates on television, however, have become more and more lame. Broadcasters and politicians have increasingly begun to fight not over the substance of the debates but over alleged bias by masters of ceremonies. All the fuss over the debates made people less and less interested in watching them -- rather, they chose television prime-time soap operas as the more interesting fare.
Is it possible to rescue the real meaning of debates when broadcast executives are said to be biased and party members are interested in debates only if they raise the standing of their candidates? Probably the only way to save them would be for the government and politicians to stop trying so fiercely to manipulate them to their own advantage.
Can that happen? Perhaps, if the independence and fairness of the debate is guaranteed and the content satisfies people's interests. A candidate's interest is not as important as the people's right to know; and as for fairness, is there any better way than letting the viewers decide?
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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