[OUTLOOK]Falling in love with populism

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[OUTLOOK]Falling in love with populism

Everyone agrees that democracy is the best political system, but there is one country that became weaker as it became a democracy. More than 3,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines every day to emigrate to the United States, Australia or Canada. These people call themselves the “boat people of Asia” and lament their situation.
In 1986, when a mass demonstration of more than a million people ousted a dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, the country was full of hope and dreams for the future. What happened that turned the Philippines into the state it is in now? After President Marcos was thrown out, the Philippines wanted to practice democracy. Unfortunately, populism, the worst kind of democracy, took over the country. A movie star, even though this is not to look down on the acting profession, became the president and then he too was thrown out. Yet another movie actor is running as a very probable candidate for the presidency in the election to be held this May. In the Philippines, popularity with the masses is a very important factor determining the success of a politician. The incumbent president, Gloria Arroyo, although hailing from the upper class with a Ph.D. in economics, could not stop this trend towards low-grade democracy. She appointed officials according to their popularity instead of their abilities, and when the employees of a state-run business openly disapproved of their boss, she had him kicked out.
The system called democracy can be run in two ways, well or badly. In order to practice democracy well, the right kind of persons must be chosen as the representatives of the people. Democracy bears in its nature the seeds to produce capable representatives for the people. This is because people have a tendency to choose those that are better than themselves and those who run as candidates compete with one another in the direction of better politics. If an incompetent person is elected, he can always be replaced in the next election. The worst situation that can rise in democracy, however, is when the replacing of faces does not change anything. When people vote in every election under the name of democracy only to end up voting for the wrong kind of candidate, we fall into a tragic cycle of replacing one bad representative with another.
The problem rises when people practice democracy but fail to choose people that are better than themselves as their representatives. This happens when people start disliking anyone who might seem superior to themselves and only feel comfortable with those who seem to be of a similar level or even inferior. Such a tendency could arise from an excessive sense of competition or envy. When this tendency does take over a country, the presidential candidates have to compete to prove that they are the poorest among all the candidates, and education from a prestigious school or a successful career could actually become a disadvantage. In addition, people can be fooled by the outward appearance of a candidate and fail to see the real person behind the persona. This can easily be seen in the cases of the Philippine people, who like movie-star presidents, or Koreans who go overboard and prefer people who have become famous through television or other public media.
The kind of competition between the candidates is also important. Should the candidates not compete in a favorable direction for society, then the more “democracy” the country practices, the more detrimental it will be to the country.
A proper household teaches its members that even if the present is difficult, one must live diligently with hopes for the future. The same must go for a country. If the head of the household only talks about immediate gratification to be popular with family members, how would that household ever function properly? It is the same with economic growth and wealth redistribution in a country. It is far more appealing to people to talk about redistribution. The more simple-minded people are, the more they fall for such tempting talk.
In which direction are our political parties leading us? If one party insists on going in the dream-filled direction, other parties should carry on with the more difficult but more worthy way. If one party wants to play on the basic instincts of the people, at least the other parties should try to move the people. If one party talks about the immediate sweet present, the other parties should talk about the future, no matter how hard it may be.
Because one party has been going around markets decked in yellow jackets on a public encouragement tour, the other parties are rushing to plan similar events. How does a group of politicians flocking to the market one day change the welfare of the public? In order to win votes in Chungcheong province, all the parties are backing up the president’s plan to move the capital to Daejeon, despite the deep-felt reservations elsewhere about this plan. Although the dispatch of troops to Iraq and the ratification of the free trade agreement with Chile are inevitable for the sake of our national interest, legislators are dragging their feet because these issues are unpopular in parts of society.
Instead of conservative and liberal, all there seems to be among our political parties is a competition in populism. The reason our future looks so bleak is not because the unemployment rate is rising or because the economy is in a difficult situation. It is because the more elections we hold, the shallower and more air-headed our country seems to get. If this generation has lost hope, we must work for the sake of the next. We must make sure that our children are not deceived by political quacks. We must teach them not to get carried away by the political circus and train them to keep their balance.

* The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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