[Outlook]Corruption of politicsThe presidential election is only one month away. But unfortunately, the campaign has so far given the impression that Korea’s politics have gone backwards. The people expect politicians to take responsibility. But there is no serious debate as to whether the two liberal administrations, the incumbent and its predecessor, have failed or succeeded. The opposition parties call this period a “lost decade,” and the ruling party’s circle is desperate to differentiate itself from the unpopular Roh administration. At the same time, it does not want to lose its former support base.
Because Korea has a single-term presidency, it is difficult for voters to call a retiring president to account for his administration’s policy choices. Answering those concerns falls to the ruling party’s candidate during the election. The ruling party’s circle needs to explain why working-class people’s lives have become tougher and why social polarization has worsened. If it does not explain itself and only focuses on attacking the rival camps in a bid to draw people’s attention and gain more votes, the people won’t be fooled.
For the past 10 years, the so-called liberal administrations’ economic policies have been quite conservative. As a result, the number of irregular jobs has snowballed and economic inequality has worsened. Many feel that times have become tougher. Left-wing forces, who ironically carried out a conservative economic policy, attempt to prove their identity and specialty in North Korea policy. But to the people who feel their lives are at stake, their North Korea policy doesn’t make much sense.
It is a tragedy that the opportunity to realize party politics has already disappeared.
Similar things have happened in almost every presidential election since Korea was democratized. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam split, the Democratic Liberal Party was founded, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil formed a coalition, Rhee In-je ran for the presidency and Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-jun decided to produce a single candidate between themselves. The past presidential elections can be summed up as a history of gatherings and separations for the single goal of getting elected.
In terms of party politics, the Grand National Party and the Democratic Labor Party can get credit for sustaining the frameworks of their parties and producing their candidates internally. But due to the absence of leadership, the GNP became sharply divided after its primary. The Democratic Labor Party, the most liberal among major parties, sticks to basics and principles of party politics and nominated Kwon Young-ghil. He can be seen as the candidate most fit for the tradition and customs of party politics because he was given the honor to represent the same political forces three times.
The people want to see the presidential candidates compete with their policies, but that seems unlikely to happen. Lee Myung-bak has been the frontrunner for a long time in polls and after winning the party’s primary, his camp became extremely arrogant. He even refused to have debates with other candidates. Critics call him a civil engineering expert because he hasn’t presented any unique policies except a plan to build a waterway across the country.
Now, scandals are so prevalent in the campaign that there is no room for debate over policies.
This presidential election campaign became more like a competition among political figures who used to belong to the GNP but have gone their separate ways. Lee Myung-bak, the leading contender, is the GNP’s candidate. Lee Hoi-chang left his home, the GNP, to run for office. Rhee In-je left his home a long time ago and took over the Democratic Party. Sohn Hak-kyu left the GNP and almost took over a newly formed party. They all belonged to the New Korea Party and then to the GNP. That is why the competition is about personalities, rather than policies.
It is natural that Lee Myung-bak has become the target of all kinds of criticism because he is the leading candidate. Besides, he presents many targets for suspicion ― speculative investment in real estate properties, false address registration, bogus employment of relatives, tax evasion and suspected stock price manipulation. One new issue comes after another.
Lee Myung-bak and the GNP argue they are innocent. But the voters clearly remember. Two former presidents, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, accumulated astronomical amounts of money through illegal and corrupt methods. Kim Young-sam’s son and Kim Dae-jung’s son were involved in corruption, and core figures of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which claimed to be the most transparent ever, were also involved in corruption. That is why the people have to continue to look into every allegation of corruption.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Hong-sik