[Outlook]Ethics questions must be balancedLee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of the Grand National Party, doesn’t need to feel that he is the only candidate who is being treated harshly. He could feel that way because his ethical or moral values have been a target for his opponents, but he is not the only candidate who has had his or her ethical values evaluated.
His extraordinarily successful career as a businessman and his assets are good fodder for a debate on his moral values. But his rivals have had their ethics examined as well, or will have them examined in the future. Candidates’ ethics have become an important factor, but this is not because of the individual candidates. Changes in society have ushered in the trend.
Let’s look at similar cases in the United States. In 1994, for the mid-term elections, Newt Gingrich used ethics to tear down the Democratic stronghold, and the Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate. He dug into questionable ethics among senior members of the Democratic Party. He then spread the perception among voters that the Republican Party must win for reform to take place and successfully rallied the conservative base.
In the 2006 mid-term elections, however, Democrats highlighted Republican scandals and successfully took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Debates on the war in Iraq and the sluggish economy negatively affected the Republi-can Party badly. But all sorts of ethics scandals sharply divided supporters in both parties and helped the Democratic Party sweep votes.
In the last several U.S. presidential elections, ethics scandals put many candidates in hot water, even though they were not necessarily death blows. It did not matter which parties they belonged to, whether they had held power before or whether their approval ratings were high.
As seen in the United States, debates on ethical issues have not become more animated because today’s politicians have lower ethical standards than those in the past. The change is a result of changing society in both the United States and in Korea.
First of all, the election process has become more transparent. The media scrutinize the candidates, and candidates also monitor one another, so ethics has taken a larger role in elections. As society became more democratized, the structure of political parties has changed and competition for votes has become fiercer. As a result, politicians try to find even more corruption in the ranks of rival factions.
A more fundamental reason is that in the modern, globalized era, changes in society have increased uncertainty in political systems. In the era of uncertainty, candidates tend to cling to ethical issues, a relatively safer campaign strategy than policies, which are subject to debate. Besides, as ethics scandals have been perceived as a main factor for deepening people’s distrust in politics, attacking rivals’ ethics has become an important strategy.
In the campaign for this year’s presidential election in Korea, ethical issues are unleashing destructive power, as they did in the 2002 presidential election. Debates on ethics are the trend these days. It can no longer be called simply a coward’s campaign strategy. All candidates, particularly strong contenders, are bound to be attacked for ethical issues, so they need to be able to put up with it.
An attack on one’s ethics might make the person in question suffer, but this has many positive aspects. Politicians become more aware of and concerned about their words and behavior so politics becomes more transparent and fair. A controversy over politicians’ ethics can start reforms to clear corruption and accumulation of power and wealth by privileged people. It can allay voters’ distrust in politics. Thus, it can improve state governance.
But the problem is that the attacks and defenses of candidates’ ethics soon eclipse all other issues. A dispute over a candidate’s ethics easily leads to emotional arguments and becomes a battle between good and evil. That is conflict in the extreme, far from moderate or rational. In such cases, candidates’ policies or philosophies on state governance fade from view. The campaign will be full of arguments about right and wrong and absolute dogmas, thus coming to a standstill.
What’s important is a sense of balance. It is important to investigate candidates’ ethical scandals, but that’s not all the campaign should be about. Evaluating candidates’ ethics must be balanced with their pledges for policies, philosophy for state governance, personalities and competence.
We no longer live in an era where politics and ethics are two different things. But at the same time, the era we are living in is not so simple that a candidate’s ethics can be the only criterion considered.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lim Sung-ho