[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Demonstrations at the polls

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Demonstrations at the polls

Last weekend’s massive candlelight demonstrations against impeachment in Korea and worldwide demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq got the media attention that the organizers wanted. They raise an interesting question: Are street demonstrations really news? If so, what kind of news are they and how should they be reported?
Between the lines in reporting on last weekend’s demonstrations was a nostalgia for “power demonstrations.” In Korea, leaders of the anti-impeachment demonstrations likened them to the massive outpouring of people power that forced Chun Doo Hwan to agree to a direct presidential election in 1987. Meanwhile, leaders of the anti-war demonstrations hope to stir up the same level of anti-war sentiment that forced the United States to start withdrawing from Vietnam in 1969. They dream of seeing a critical mass forcing the change that they want.
Reality tells a different story because 2004 is not 1987 or 1968. The problems and players are different. Most of all, the times are different. Understanding the differences between 2004 and 1987 and 1968 explains why last weekend’s demonstrations were not major news.In Korea, the demonstrations in favor of a direct presidential election in 1987 were long in coming. After taking power in a coup in 1979 and brutally suppressing dissent in 1980, Chun Doo Hwan put himself in office in 1981 using a rigged electoral college and ruled as a dictator for the next seven years. Mr. Chun presided over a booming economy and was responsible for bringing the Olympics to Korea, but these accomplishments never translated into popular support. This pent-up anger burst into rage in massive street demonstrations in 1987, forcing Chun to accept a direct presidential election. The demonstrations were dangerous business, requiring courage and commitment from participants. The demonstrators knew that they had no other recourse than the streets.
Fast-forward to 2004 and the differences become obvious. Roh Moo-hyun was elected president in a free election in 2002; the National Assembly was elected in a free election in 2000. Voters, not the military or anybody else, put them in the positions they held. The impeachment of President Roh was unjustified and foolish, but it was the act of a legitimately elected National Assembly. The candlelight demonstrations are festive (and well-planned) events more like the World Cup rallies than the dangerous demonstrations of 1987.
The biggest difference between 1987 and 2004 is that the Korean people have the power of the ballot box as their final recourse. If they feel strongly about the impeachment, they are free to express themselves in the National Assembly elections on April 15. An overwhel-ming vote for Our Open Party candidates would send a strong message against it. Because impeach-ment is essentially a political problem, the Constitutional Court is closely watching public opinion for guidance. Polls about impeachment may be helpful, but there is nothing more powerful than election results to gauge public opinion.
With the ballot box holding the key to President Roh’s fate, the street demonstrations become peri-pheral because they tell us little about shifts in national public opinion. Gathering 100,000 or 200,000 people for a festive event in a city of 10 million population with excellent public transportation is an easy task. The polls are important news because well-designed polls are accurate in discerning the direction of public opinion. Politicians know this and act accordingly. The sight of 100,000-200,000 people carrying candles in Gwanghwamun is photogenic and worth reporting as an interesting event that celebrates free speech, but that is about it.
The same holds true of the demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Most of the demonstrations took place in wealthy democracies where voters have recourse at the ballot box. In the recent election in Spain, voters used that recourse to change the government and the nation’s policy toward Iraq. Spain will withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition and bring its troops home by June 30. In the United States, none of the much larger demonstrations before the war had an effect on policy because polls and results of the 2002 Congressional elections offered support to President Bush’s policy. In 1968, by contrast, the Democratic Party turned on President Johnson because of Vietnam, forcing him out of the race, and growing anti-war sentiment pressured President Nixon to hasten the withdraw in time for the 1972 election.
As political activities, demonstrations play an important role in motivating supporters and convincing others to join the cause. Posters, banners, flyers, advertisements, and most important of all, the Internet, are other tools that activists can use to reach out to supporters. What is news about these activities is how successful they are in attracting support that is converted into political power and influential social movements. April 15 will answer this question, and it will most certainly be big news.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.


by Robert J. Fouser
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