[OUTLOOK]When it’s always election yearWhen I was a young boy, I’d often play at my friend’s house. One day, left alone to play by ourselves, we wanted to get some ice cream. Both my friend and I wanted some, but we were both feeling too lazy to make the trip to the ice cream shop, which was a little way off from my friend’s house. So we agreed to decide who should make the trip with a game of paper, scissors and rock.
We played, and I won. But my friend then insisted that the winner should be decided by two wins out of three. He kept insisting, so I agreed. He won the next two rounds.
This time, I said the victor should be decided by three wins out of five. This continued, and at the end of the day, neither my friend nor I got a taste of ice cream.
Spending the holidays abroad, I had not heard any domestic news recently. Curious as to the state things were in, I asked a Korean acquaintance I met recently to tell me what was going on in domestic politics these days. Oh, the same old bickering, I was told. “Don’t ask. You’d feel better if you don’t know.” Concerning Korean politics, it seems that the aphorism “No news is good news” is very much true, though in a quite different sense than usual.
Korean politics, viewed from the position of the everyday observer, is enough to turn anyone into a cynic. The biggest reason it is so annoying is that the bickering never seems to stop. The strife never gets resolved, but continues to be replicated in one form or another.
The mechanism for resolving political strife and disagreement, in a democratic society, is the election. Whether held every four years or every five, elections provide a regular outlet for tension between political factions before it escalates. During election periods, therefore, it is true that the elections themselves tend to get heated, and as a consequence, the competition and tension between political forces usually increases.
However, once the elections are over and the winners are determined, extreme political feuding can be avoided during the winners’ term of office.
This, unfortunately, is not true in Korea. The political strife seems to continue non-stop throughout both electoral and non-electoral periods in Korea.
Our last presidential election could be seen to have actually begun in the second half of 2001. It continued throughout 2002, and caused frenzied commotion throughout the country. The political strife has yet to be placated, however, even since the presidential race ended and a new president took office.
The outcome of the political fight was not determined by the victory in the presidential election, because the loser could hope to turn the tables in the general National Assembly elections not far off. As a result, we have been witnessing an energy-wasting period of political competition that’s lasted nearly three years; it started in 2001 and will continue into April, when the general elections will be held.
Even this, however, is not the end. There is more to come. If we accept the likely possibility that the race for the presidential election in late 2007 will unofficially begin in late 2006, it means we will enter another campaign cycle just two years after the legislative elections. Korea, in other words, suffers from chronic electoral competition syndrome.
Elections that determine the future direction of power ― or the future holders of power ― are by nature all-or-nothing fights. Political parties or forces put everything at stake to clash head-on with one another. As we are witnessing even now, when elections approach, the opposition party leaders make grand speeches expressing their resolution to win and their determination to stake their political careers. And the president is about to mobilize even his cabinet ministers to run as candidates in the legislative elections.
In this state of extreme contention, it seems too naive to plead for “political co-existence,” and too optimistic to hope that despite the elections, the government will not be distracted from making and implementing policies rationally and effectively.
The reason my childhood friend and I never got our ice cream, even after we’d agreed to decide who’d go get it by a game of paper, scissors and rock, was that we each thought we could win the next game, even after we’d just lost. Similarly, as long as the winning party is not decided in one shot and the loser is given the chance to reverse the situation in another round, the fighting among our political parties will never stop. The reason Korean politics has become a chronic battleground is that the presidential election and the National Assembly elections alternate, always offering the political party that lost in one election a chance to turn things around in the next.
This is why our society must seriously consider adjusting the cycles of the presidential and the National Assembly elections. Whether every four years or every five years, if we readjust the presidential and the National Assembly terms to make the two the same, so as to hold the presidential race and the legislative elections simultaneously (or at least close together), we could alleviate the chronic state of extreme political contention that we have been witnessing. Running a country is a far more serious business than deciding who should go for ice cream.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Won-taek