[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Will it be politics as usual?Thomas Khun’s famous theory of paradigm shifts in science is useful in analyzing political trends. In Mr. Khun’s theory, sudden shifts in dominant research paradigms in science occur rapidly after a long period of “normal science.”
Gradually, normal science reveals faults in the dominant paradigm, and eventually the paradigm collapses under the weight of criticism. After the collapse, a new paradigm emerges and becomes the dominant paradigm, ushering in a new period of normal science.
In politics, normal science is “politics as usual,” and paradigm shifts are “political realignments.” During periods of politics as usual, election results are often close, and partisan battles intense. Political realignments, by contrast, come quickly and decisively, quelling partisan fighting until a new period of politics as usual begins.
Like paradigm shifts, the weight of dissatisfaction over politics as usual can trigger a political realignment. More commonly, however, a national crisis of some sort causes a political realignment.
Many commentators have referred to the upcoming election in Korea as a “revolution,” but it remains to be seen whether it will stir a political realignment or be yet another chapter in the story of politics as usual. Though polls point toward a political realignment, history suggests politics as usual.
Since democratization in 1987, two broad themes have dominated Korean politics: regionalism and boss-centered parties. The themes are interconnected because the regions with powerful bosses were the most loyal, producing highly skewed regional voting patterns.
To win the presidency and control the National Assembly, as Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung did, a boss had to form an alliance with another boss to get hegemony over the third boss. Kim Jong-pil, the weakest of the three bosses, became the leading kingmaker, supporting Kim Young-sam in 1992 and Kim Dae-jung in 1997. His support helped Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung form working majorities in the National Assembly during important early years of their administrations.
The 2002 presidential election appears not to be politics as usual because none of the three Kims was on the ballot and Kim Jong-pil did not support a particular candidate. Voting patterns, however, show that regionalism was as dominant as ever. Roh Moo-hyun swept Kim Dae-jung’s home region with more the 90 percent of the vote, but lost in his own home region of Busan and South Gyeongsang Province.
The only evidence of a possible political realignment is the strong support for Mr. Roh among younger voters in Busan and other areas in the Youngnam region. Most important, Mr. Roh’s victory over Lee Hoi-chang was narrow, a key sign of politics as usual.
In many other countries, a presidential election under an economic crisis of the scale of the one that occurred in 1997 would have triggered a political realignment. In the depths of the Depression in 1932, American voters threw out the Republican president and Congress, creating a Democratic majority that dominated American politics until Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980.
Economic crisis in other countries typically causes a political realignment. The economic crisis of 1997 took place on Kim Young-sam’s watch; yet Lee Hoi-chang, who ran as his successor, lost the election narrowly to Kim Dae-jung.
In the general elections in 2000, the opposition Grand National Party, which had been the ruling party during the economic crisis, was rewarded with more seats. This result followed those of 1988, 1992 and 1996 in which the opposition parties did well, suggesting that voters are wary of giving the ruling party too much power.
Under normal circumstances, this year’s National Assembly elections should be politics as usual, but the recent impeachment of President Roh is not normal. As a crisis, however, impeachment is mild compared with the economic crisis of 1997. The system set in place to deal with impeachments is working well, perhaps far better than anyone would have expected.
At the same time, about 70 percent of the people oppose impeachment. The question for the election is whether they will act on those feelings and hold the parties that supported impeachment accountable. If they do, then a political realignment will be in the making. If not, politics as usual will rule.
The unwillingness in 1997 to hold those in power accountable for the economic crisis suggests that politics as usual may win the day. To be sure, the collapse of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) means that President Roh’s Our Open Party has a strong chance of gaining a majority of the seats. This would reverse the historical tendency of strong opposition showings in the National Assembly elections, but that does not constitute a political realignment.
For a political realignment to occur, one of the major parties would have to win an overwhelming victory, defying traditional regional voting patterns and creating new and enduring voting patterns.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser