[Outlook]Rethinking suffrage for all

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[Outlook]Rethinking suffrage for all

Since the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the election law denying voting rights to Koreans living overseas is unconstitutional, debates have been going on in political circles about revising the law.
The right of Korean nationals to vote abroad is an important issue with a huge effect on politics, so lots of discussion and preparation is needed.
But the politicians’ discussions about revising the law are hardly convincing.
Politicians seem more preoccupied with their possible political gains and losses than with the principles in the Constitution.
In particular, the same political faction crying for democratization is being passive about granting voting rights to a larger number of people, raising questions about the strength of their political conviction. These politicians often talk about conviction and principles, but on the inside, they seem to reason just like other politicians.
It is inevitable, to some extent, for politicians to use suffrage as a political strategy. That’s what happens in a mass democracy. In other countries that have a longer history of democracy than Korea, people’s voting rights grew because of political strategies, not because of a democratic conviction.
For instance, in the late 19th century, Britain granted voting rights to a large number of people and then to an even larger number later. The main cause was fierce competition between the liberal and conservative parties.
Germany, under Bismarck’s autocratic rule, granted voting rights to all male adults even before Britain, where parliamentary democracy began. By doing so, Bismarck aimed to create a wedge between citizens and the working class.
These cases deliver a clear message. Although as many people as possible must be allowed to participate in politics for the sake of democracy, giving more people those rights does not guarantee that a democracy will develop.
Of course, the history of suffrage has evolved so that today, voting rights are given to everyone above a certain age.
These days, this trend is taken for granted ― but it hasn’t always been. Even countries with a long history of democracy have had limited or status-based suffrage based on people’s wealth, education and gender for long periods of time.
Most people these days regard the tradition of limited suffrage or status-related suffrage as a shameful heritage that must be abolished to further develop a democracy.
But the people who designed such a system to limit voting rights according to people’s tax records and wealth, had legitimate reasons for doing so.
They believed people who were subordinate to others financially would find it hard to make independent political judgments.
They also believed people who had nothing to protect, such as wealth or status, were highly likely to be easily influenced by political incitements and make irresponsible choices. Attempts to limit voting rights are certainly undemocratic, but on the other hand, such limitations were invented because democracy has innate weak spots, including the danger of demagoguery and populism.
Logically, it is much harder to defend universal suffrage than limited or graded suffrage.
How can one justify an institution that grants voting rights to everyone and treats them equally, while ignoring their different levels of understanding and political awareness? Is it logical and convincing to maintain equality among people and justice simply because it is morally right?
For the sake of democracy, it is the quality of voters that matters, not the quantity. We should care more about how much people appreciate their right to vote and try to make the best choices rather than how many people have the right to vote.
The foundation for universal suffrage or equal suffrage is the premise that individual voters are mature, responsible citizens who are capable of making reasonable decisions.
If these prerequisites are not satisfied, a democracy is always in danger of falling into the control of a majority of fools.
The presidential election will be held later this year and the result is hard to predict.
Still, many seem to believe that arbitrary factors such as suspicions about rival candidates or inter-Korean issues will determine the result.
It is worrisome that a certain social atmosphere at a given moment, instead of reasonable judgment, might decide the future of our country. Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning sounds appropriate now. He pointed out that in a society where equality is prioritized far more than freedom, it is hard to elect a good leader.

*The writer is a professor of Western history at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ahn Byung-jik
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