[Outlook]Politicians’ second fiddle

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[Outlook]Politicians’ second fiddle

The early 21st century in Korea is an era of participation. There are many phenomena that reflect this characteristic. A variety of civil organizations have formed in different sectors across the country.
Protests and gatherings have become commonplace. It is not a coincidence that the incumbent administration called itself a “participatory government” when entering office.
It can be said that the incumbent administration succeeded in assuming power as enthusiasm for participation grew to dominate our society.
That participation has become the spirit of the era means that our society is becoming more democratic and mature. This is very encouraging.
However, the phenomenon of participation should not always be welcomed. That is the case with the major political parties’ presidential primaries.
Except for one, all the political parties that have floor negotiation groups have decided to let the people decide their candidates. This is a typical example of participation.
Such primaries can be seen as contributions to the development of democracy, as public opinion is reflected in the parties’ decision making.
However, this tends to hinder the development of party politics, which is the foundation of democratic politics.
The political parties say their primaries encourage the people to participate in politics. But there is another factor.
The parties are not confident enough to select candidates on their own.
The new primaries can be summarized as simply the political parties letting the people choose their candidates. The ordinary people’s opinions decided the results of party primaries, which are going on now or have ended.
People’s primaries mean that party politics has disappeared. The parties have given up their right to choose the people who will play the biggest roles in realizing their ideologies and policies.
The parties thus deny their raison d’etre. It is hard to expect competent and responsible rule from a party that has lost its identity and is unsure of why it exists.
Each political party has devised new and complicated ways for the people to vote, such as electoral votes, votes through cell phones, and polls.
The parties say these are good ways to collect and reflect public opinion. But what does public opinion mean exactly?
The term “public opinion” sounds appealing and persuasive in democratic politics.
But it is also very abstract and vague. Besides, public opinion can be manipulated, spontaneous, capricious and irresponsible at times.
It is doubtful that the parties had people participate in their primaries solely in order to reflect public opinion. It is very likely that their intention was to draw attention to their events.
If the primaries were used as a strategy, it would be fairer to say the parties mobilized the people for their primaries instead of saying that they let the people participate in them.
The political parties might have succeeded in drawing attention to their primaries.
But they did not contribute to the development of party politics.
The new primaries revealed the characteristics of grassroots democracy, in which popularity is the most important factor when deciding a political leader.
The elections for political leaders have become very similar to votes that find out who the most popular entertainers are.
This can worsen a situation in which politicians have become more like entertainment figures.
In Korea, politics is not driven by critical thinking and productive discussions. It has long become a show about power that stimulates people’s curiosity.
The same terms used in gambling or games are often used for political events.
Korea’s politics is not about coexistence and harmony, but more about conflict and confrontation.
It is more dramatic than a TV series, so the people are anxious for an exciting come-from-behind victory.
Here is a question we need to ask ourselves: In the name of people’s primaries, haven’t we, the people, degraded ourselves into playing supporting roles in a drama aimed at boosting the theatrical effect in politics?

*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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