[VIEWPOINT]Regulate parties from withinThe American movie “Gangs of New York,” which was first shown in 2002, deals with the violence and conflicts within lower class immigrant groups in Manhattan in the 1860s. The interesting point is that the movie shows the corrupt politics of political parties to be the source of conflict between the immigrant groups.
In the movie, Boss Tweed is portrayed as a symbolic character, a “political party machine,” who promotes division between the groups and rules over them and ultimately the entire city by using social conflict in his favor. Boss Tweed is based on a real New York City politician named William Tweed, who led a group of corrupt politicians. He gained power in the Democratic party in 1863, when he was elected the “Grand Sachem” of Tammany Hall, originally a fraternal organization.
Although he held minor elected offices, Mr. Tweed primarily exercised power through his control of patronage, the ability to appoint his supporters to jobs in New York City government. Not only did he maintain and increase his power by rewarding his supporters, he also profited personally from business conducted by the city of New York. He finally went to prison for embezzlement and died there. He remains a symbol of corrupt party politics to this day.
The reason why I mention this film is that Boss Tweed’s method of recruiting party members and the way he became influential by exerting control over these people is suggestive of the recent controversy over how Korean political parties enlist their party members. At the end of the 19th century, the major constituents of the political parties in American cities were the lower class, and immigrants from Europe were the main source of new party members.
There is a scene in the movie that illustrates the political reality of the time, where Boss Tweed forces new immigrants who have just arrived at New York harbor to join the Democratic party. The immigrants were provided with employment or improved housing facilities in return for joining the party.
The party members thus recruited were mobilized in preliminary elections to nominate party candidates for elections, and supported the candidates who the boss told them to in open ballots. The democratic process of preliminary elections, in which a party’s candidates are elected, became a basis for closed door politics and an arbitrary operation of the party by the bosses through forced mobilization of party members.
The corrupt politics of the United States, which were at their worst at the end of the 19th century, were finally overcome by efforts to democratize parties internally, provoked by the reform movement that swept over the country in the beginning of the 20th century.
Korean political parties have recently started to adopt a system of granting membership to those who pay fees, in light of the United States’ past experience. However, expanding the participation of ordinary party members is not enough to democratize party politics. If the recruiting process, which is the starting point, is undemocratic or illegal, the establishment of political platforms, election of candidates and the election campaign process itself can also only be undemocratic. There is a greater chance that the follow-up political processes will also become undemocratic and lead to tyranny by the bosses, the crippled operation of the party or even a disappearance of party politics.
Parties born out of political purposes are not constitutional organizations, and all citizens have the right to enjoy freedom of assembly and association under the constitution. In addition, their activities must always be within the bounds of democratic order. If the activities of a political party stray from the framework of democratic order, it is unavoidable that the necessity to regulate the party officially will be raised.
The problem is that the method of regulating political parties has to be approached with caution. The essence of the realization of party politics lies in the open and democratic process of nominating candidates. This means that the leadership of the party comes under the scrutiny of democratic rules when its candidates are elected through the active and voluntary participation of ordinary party members. In the investigations on fabricating “fake party members” and extorting party dues from government subsidies paid to needy people without their knowledge, those responsible should be held strictly accountable for their violations of the current law.
However, any democratic management of a party that goes beyond the level of providing a chance to promote reform in party politics shouldn’t be forced. The core of regulation of political parties lies in internal spontaneity. After all, democratic party politics is ultimately accomplished by internal reform and self-regulation, not by external regulations by the government.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at Kyunghee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chung Ha-yong