[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Something for all in electionResults of the election for the National Assembly on April 15 brought something good for almost everybody.
Riding a wave of high voter turnout in the cities, Our Open Party gained more than 100 seats to capture 152 of the 299 seats. The opposition Grand National Party avoided collapse by winning a respectable 121 seats.
The Democratic Labor Party entered the legislature for the first time with 10 seats. Liberals walked away from the election pleased that for the first time since 1960, they had become the majority force in Korean politics.
Conservatives took comfort in winning more than the 100 seats needed to stop amendments to the Constitution. Independents in search of a new politics heralded the weakening of regionalism in the collapse of the Millennium Democratic Party and the United Liberal Democrats.
Taking the long view of the development of democracy in Korea, the election results were optimal. Embattled President Roh Moo-hyun now has a National Assembly that he can work with, and this gives him a chance to rescue his presidency from the ranks of failed ones.
At the same time, Our Open Party’s majority is slim, forcing it to work with other parties on controversial legislation. After decades as political outcasts, the left now has a voice within the system in the Democratic Labor Party.
The spectrum of ideas in the National Assembly has widened greatly, which will focus attention on policies rather than personalities.
Amid the raging controversy over impeachment, what caused such an optimal result? Regardless of their political views, most voters decided to hold politicians accountable for their actions.
The rise of accountability as the prime mover in Korean politics creates a new paradigm in which politicians must earn the support of voters instead of relying on regionalism and other emotional issues. This change is a giant step in developing a healthy democracy in Korea.
Impeachment was the most powerful vote-moving issue, but it was not as powerful as had been predicted before the campaign began. Still, enough voters held the parties that voted for impeachment accountable. The Grand Nationals fared poorly outside of their traditional base in the Yongnam area of the southeast.
Taken together, Our Open Party and the Democratic Labor Party ― the two parties that were against impeachment ― received 51 percent of the vote, whereas the three parties that supported impeachment received about 46 percent of the vote.
The anti-impeachment parties topped 30 percent of the vote in every province, greatly weakening regionalism. The collapse of the Millennium Democrats and the United Liberal Democrats, however, constituted the resounding rejection of impeachment that Our Open Party needed.
Much further down the list is the popularity of Park Geun-hye, the new leader of the Grand National Party. Selected just before the campaign began, Park had little time to change the image of the party from a corrupt one dominated by aging politicians from the past. She combined symbolism with a positive campaign about the economy.
Enough voters rewarded her for changing the tone of politics to prevent the collapse of the party.
At the other end of the political spectrum, voters rewarded the Democratic Labor Party for consistent and informed positions on a wide range of issues.
This explains why the party received 10 to 15 percent of the vote in every province, except for industrial Ulsan, where it received 21 percent of the vote.
For future elections, the rise of accountability means that voters will punish parties that lose their self-discipline and become corrupt and autocratic. At the same time, they will reward parties that maintain self-discipline and address the issues of the day forthrightly.
As long as accountability holds, no political party can create an electoral majority that turns it into the natural party of government. For Our Open Party, the stakes are high because the party must develop self-discipline and expertise in policymaking quickly.
Failure to do so will result in a trickle on the left to the Democratic Labor Party and a trickle on the right to the Grand Nationals. For the conservative party, however, the stakes are equally high because it must do the same thing. Failure to do so will bring collapse because the party has run out of second chances.
The people, except for the ideological fringes, now have the luxury of watching political parties court their support.
For the first time in Korean history, the people have leverage over their government, not the other way around. Democratic leverage is a delicate thing, however, because it requires self-discipline and responsibility to maintain the system that makes it possible.
How the people of South Korea use and maintain their democratic leverage will be the topic of the next chapter in the history of this most amazing nation.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser