[Outlook]Power and responsibilityThe December presidential elections are approaching. Public interest in politics is rising. The pulses of our politicians are racing. As usual.
Institutional democracy in Korea was launched 20 years ago with the mass movement of 1987, which resulted in the revision of the constitution to allow for direct presidential elections. With two decades having passed, it is a good time to move on from our initial fevered enthusiasm and reflect on where our politics now stand and whether we are moving in the right direction.
The stability of a democracy is measured by how the people’s interests are represented and whether their representatives are held responsible for their actions. The question of who should represent the people’s interests is a matter that is more relevant to a system of representative democracy than to a direct democracy. While it is important that representatives try to work for the people as a whole, it is impossible for one politician or party to represent the entire population. The role of a democratic party is not to represent the entire nation, but only a segment of the population. It must represent its members and those among the general public who support their political beliefs and policies. It must continuously be responsible to its supporters and be judged by the people.
The limitation of today’s politics in Korea is that our political parties seem utterly incapable of exercising political representation properly and responsibly.
For example, it is common practice among Korean parties to change their name when they win the presidential election. At times, the president-elect even bolts from his party without any obvious legitimate reason. Such practices are incomprehensible from the textbook definition of democracy.
The fact that our politicians think they can create or do away with a political party every election season is an indication of just how little regard they have for the people they are supposed to represent. They consider their promises and responsibilities to be mere trifles. (It could be noted here that one reason Koreans have so quietly accepted the coming and going of political parties is because of our age-old hierarchical political culture, which descended from the time of our royal dynasties.)
As Montesquieu once pointed out, the success of democratic politics depends on the separation of powers with no one branch of government able to acquire an absolute hold on power. Such a separation of powers is only possible with the existence of a strong legislature. Only with the legislature as its center can a political system stand firm and make progress toward responsible representative government. In the Korean mentality, however, while there is a strong inborn resentment towards dictatorship, there is also a paradoxical yearning for a strong leader. The recent phenomenon of admiration for historical leaders such as Wang Geun, Jumong and Dae Jo-yeong might be seen as a reflection of this national tendency. Thus, we seem to accept a presidency with little sense of responsibility. In a crisis, we habitually point all fingers toward the president when he has no practical means of solving all the problems of the nation.
If we are to set our democracy on the right track, we must have politicians and parties who are willing to state their positions on important national issues and take responsibility for their words and deeds. Take the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, for instance. If the leadership of the Uri Party strongly opposes the FTA, it should just relinquish its title as the governing party and officially part ways with President Roh Moo-hyun and former President Kim Dae-jung. If the opposition Grand National Party and its two potential presidential candidates agree with President Roh on the FTA, then they should say so to the public.
Or consider the Grand National Party’s recent change of heart on North Korea. If it has decided not to oppose the “Sunshine Policy” any longer, it should say so. The party should explain its position on the Sunshine Policy and how the ultimate goal of reunification can be achieved. It should clarify its policies and take responsibility for the results.
There is no doubt that the state of Korean politics is getting worse. Public support has dwindled to a dangerously low level and the feud between the president and the governing party is a clear indication that we lack the two essential elements in a democracy: proper representation and responsibility. This is a self-wrought tragedy bred by our practice of putting individual candidates before parties or policies. Taking the next election as an opportunity, we ― politicians and non-politicians alike ― should put an end to the anomalies in our politics and demand to see real party politics take root for good.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo