[Outlook]Man of the times

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[Outlook]Man of the times

The presidential race has been chaotic. We wonder if we have to go through this chaotic process every time we choose a leader for our country. The candidates in this year’s race are a varied lot: a person who changed his political convictions many times, a person who lacks a sense of moral values as a public figure, a person who is confused about the difference between business and public affairs, a person who has just changed political parties and a person who wants revenge. Whenever such people run for the presidency and cause confusion, we despair at seeing the reality of our political situation, which is far from advanced.
As has always been the case, a new political party was created to assume power, and politicians either supported certain candidates or carried out negative campaigns. Politi-cal parties gathered temporarily, and politicians swiftly transformed themselves. Such practices are hard to find in advanced countries, so not only ordinary citizens but also political scientists cannot understand them. Korea enjoys a $20,000 national per capita income and its democracy is ranked at around 30th in the world. But the political arena in the country has been chaotic for the past year and the campaign has just started in a real sense with only one week to go before the election. We have to make our choices soon.
To be honest, I am not sure what Korea needs to pursue in the 21st century, or what the core values are for our times. As many candidates claim, the economy is important. Social justice, people’s livelihoods, education, welfare, diplomacy and peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula are important, too. The six main contenders for president make new products from these ingredients and try to sell them.
Their products seem quite similar to one another, but the ingredients differ greatly. Five years ago, voters bought a product that contained more “social justice” than other ingredients, but the quality turned out to be mediocre. So this time, the taste of many consumers has changed. Now they want a “revitalized economy.” But there is no guarantee that the strong contender will meet voters’ needs for a better economy.
Zeitgeist, a German term for the spirit of the times, does not mean that an outstanding, elite politician makes a breakthrough for history. The term refers to the collective wishes of ordinary people living at a particular time.
In 2005, Germany, the country that called itself a “social state,” was suffering from low and slow growth. Ordinary, hard-working German people were tired of the unemployed who received and lived on welfare benefits, so they rang an alarm bell. Understanding the people’s feelings, Angela Merkel hung a banner outside the office of the Christian Democratic Union that read “At a time when 5 million are unemployed, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder must leave the planet.” Five million unemployed is the same number killed during the nightmare of Nazi rule. The heroine Merkel easily forced Schroder out. That was the spirit of the time in Germany.
Korea is not a welfare state like Germany was. A revitalized economy is not the only thing that makes up the spirit of our time. Voters want something more essential and fundamental than that.
As a result, voters do not buy presidential candidates’ policies. When the candidates shout that they will battle against corruption, voters do not respond. They are worried about one candidate’s plan to build a canal across the country, but that is something to worry about later. Voters want to be consoled and comforted after the past five years when they were abused with vulgar and ungraceful words. They want the new president to manage the country with common sense so that he can follow global trends. Voters want a university entrance system that allows students to get into universities if they work hard and get good scores. The dreams for a decent and normal life are at the center of the spirit of our time. The spirit of the time is not necessarily something grand.
We need a leader who encourages us, not one who scolds us. It would be even better to have a leader who listens to us and takes responsibility. The president should be able to discard his pledge if the people do not want it. It would be lucky for us if the president surrounds himself with people who have experience, wisdom and flexibility. It would be terrific if the next president knows how to navigate on the global stage amid harsh competition.
As President Roh, who says his term is in its last stage, did five years ago, every presidential candidate is raising his voice and saying he is the right person. Who will it be? With one week to go before we vote, we would like to see the right person. If there is no right person, we want to see at least a hint of such a person.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translatio
n by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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