[OUTLOOK]A historic day at the polls

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[OUTLOOK]A historic day at the polls

Korean voters will decide who will be in the National Assembly tomorrow. In these elections, which candidate is elected or which party becomes the majority is not the most important issue.
The citizens are standing at a historic juncture to decide whether we should renew our mandate for a liberal democracy or whether we will be taken in by nostalgia for the authoritarian regimes and let democracy drift away. Democracy has barely established itself here after long suffering.
Once we make the decision, we will have to bear the responsibility and accept the consequences.
The legislative politics of Korea have fallen into a pitiful state. In the midst of the downfall, politicians, especially the assemblymen, made themselves reputations among Koreans as symbols of corruption, abuse of power, graft and immorality.
The National Assembly is condemned as a stage of anti-democratic indecency based on personal interests instead of being seen as a place to consider the fate of the nation. If our citizens’ kicks and blows to the National Assembly are to clean up the political corruption and illegality accumulated over the last half-century, the Assembly must invite still more assaults and seek a turning point toward reform.
But in looking back on the five decades of political history in Korea, the Blue House has always been the center of politics, while the National Assembly fell into the outskirts of political power. So it is not quite appropriate to hold the National Assembly accountable for today’s political corruption and degeneration.
We cannot blame the legislative branch alone for having been engrossed only in maintaining the minimal shape and life of democracy. It was in a secondary position in a political tradition that gave nearly unlimited power to the president and the administrative branch.
We need to give thought to the current atmosphere, in which we often hear the expression “the president elected by the voters,” even though we are not used to saying “the lawmakers elected by the voters.”
Because the National Assembly, especially the outgoing one, had to assume the responsibility for all political degeneration, the voters will have no choice but to take the fundamental responsibility for Korea’s political development. As we stand and face the National Assembly election tomorrow, citizens will make their choices in a historic mission to re-launch representative democracy in the Republic of Korea.
We need to end the possibility of people’s disappointment and distrust toward politicians turning into skepticism toward representative democracy itself. A democratic country can achieve healthy development only when a representative body, elected by the voters according to a legal procedure, plays a central role in the operation of the state. Tomorrow, we, the voters, will hand-pick the National Assembly members and let them be the center of Korean politics.
Anyone who believes that he represents the citizens better than the lawmakers elected by the voters is dangerously arrogant, and the spread of self-righteousness is a dangerous epidemic. The more troubled the state of the nation, the more contagious the epidemic becomes.
In a moment of national crisis, people might grow impatient and frustrated at representative democracy, whose goal is to reach the greatest common denominator by compromising different opinions and interests of citizens in accordance with the law and legal procedures. In that case, people might be tempted to steer away from parliamentary politics and toward street politics ― in other words, detour the procedures of representative politics and jump to participatory politics. But the urge to personally participate in politics could become very dangerous. Numerous historical examples can be found to show that yielding to that temptation is the shortcut to dictatorship. In order to avoid the catastrophic risk, citizens have to keep the faith in representative democracy and, once again, be resolved to take the responsibility for their choices.
In order to let the new National Assembly, that the voters will elect tomorrow, maintain a healthy relationship of checks and balances with “the president elected by the voters” as “the assembly elected by the voters,” it is important for the citizens to reach a national consensus on parliamentary democracy and defend it. The citizens need to unite and make special efforts to help the political practice of respecting the Constitution take root. In essence, democratic politics, especially representative democracy, is based on the principle of responsible politics.
“Irresponsible politics” and an “irresponsible government” have caused chronic aliments in the political history of Korea. If the determination for a structural reform of the political system to correct the evils of “irresponsibility” takes place, at least to a certain degree, as a result of the National Assembly elections, the nation will have a chance to make a leap toward political development.
There is no need to point fingers any more. Tomorrow, let’s elect representatives that we will never regret and entrust our political responsibility to the Assembly where our representatives meet. We the citizens already have many other challenges in our hands other than politics.

* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hong-koo
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