[Outlook]Get out the voteThe legislative elections are only four days away. But the media reports show that more than 30 percent of voters haven’t decided yet whom they will support. Some may still be thinking about whom they should vote for, but most simply don’t care who is elected. These people won’t bother voting. The National Election Commission estimates that turnout rates will be 51.9 percent. Nearly one in two won’t vote.
It was only 20 years ago that people cried out that democracy feeds on blood. In the dark rooms of an intelligence agency, young students were tortured to death and people stayed up all night when votes were being counted to prevent corruption. Koreans in their 30s and 40s feel sympathy when they hear about Kenya’s elections and the election in Zimbabwe.
In Kenya, 1,500 people were killed while trying to overturn a fraudulent election result. Through an election in Zimbabwe, people wanted dearly to end the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, who handed out 9 million votes when there were only 5.9 million votes.
We Koreans are perhaps throwing away our hard-earned democracy too easily.
The basis of democracy is participation. But the public is gradually disappearing from politics. Political circles exclude people, and many voters give up their participation in politics voluntarily. Elections are becoming parties for politicians. This is a crisis in democracy.
The first opportunity for the people to take part is in the parties’ primaries. But at that stage, the people were not welcomed.
But the primaries for this year’s legislative elections still deserve praise. The parties set the bar higher for candidate ethics and replaced influential politicians with fresh faces. Voters were truly satisfied. But the praise soon turned into disappointment. After the interests of different factions came into play, the strict ethical standards become too loose for some candidates.
What about the candidates the parties nominated? The parties nominated candidates for certain constituencies, there was no place for the people to voice their opinions.
In some cases, a candidate whom residents of a certain constituency had never seen before was nominated and there was no time to evaluate his or her qualifications.
But under party politics, voters cast their votes on the basis of candidates’ parties. The candidate makes a tour of the area for two weeks begging for votes. Even if the candidates are elected, the residents don’t know when they will meet them again.
Political parties once talked about changing the political party system into a U.S.-style system and shutting down local party chapters.
But this move toward advanced democracy soon disappeared. This is why old-generation figures who were replaced by new faces still enjoy higher approval ratings in some constituencies.
A more serious problem is turnout rates. Turnout rates have kept going down. In 1985, the turnout rate was 84.6 percent, and in 2000 the figure was 57.2 percent. This year, we are worried whether turnout will exceed 50 percent. There are no signs of improvement. According to data released by the National Election Commission, in the last presidential election, among voters in their 50s, 76.6 percent voted when they were in their late 20s, but the turnout now was 42.9 percent. In the 12th National Assembly elections in 1985, the people were united by a passion to block the two parties created by the Chun Doo Hwan administration from taking National Assembly seats. It was a long time ago, but can’t we expect something similar to happen now, like the young Americans who support Barack Obama in the United States?
One vote has enormous power. In the 16th legislative elections, Mun Hak-jin, a candidate running in Gwangju, was defeated by three votes. In the 14th general elections, Lim Chae-jung was defeated by 36 votes but after a recount he won by 62 votes. In the 16th general elections, in 15 constituencies, winners were elected by less than 1,000 votes, and in the 17th general elections, the same was true for 10 constituencies. In local elections, countless candidates were elected, or defeated, by a single vote.
The same is true for this year’s general elections. Experts in polls say that in some 70 constituencies out of a total of 245, candidates will be in tight battles. In around 40 constituencies out of the 70, differences in approval ratings between rivals are within the margin of error. In more than 10 constituencies, the results of a survey of the general public differ from those of surveys conducted of those who say they will vote. This means that whether you vote or not might change results in your constituency.
However, we are not alone in terms of low turnout. In England, the turnout in the 2005 general elections was 61 percent, much lower than before. The European country is considering drawing up a measure to punish those who don’t vote. Twenty-one countries have already introduced similar systems.
Australia imposes fines on those who don’t vote. Other countries put them behind bars. Greece makes it difficult for those who don’t vote to get a passport or a driver’s license. In Brazil, Belgium, the Philippines and Argentina, people who don’t vote have difficulty becoming civil workers or getting promotions in the civil sector. When you neglect your duties as a citizen, you give up your rights, according to these countries.
The Korean government is thinking about giving people incentives to vote, but should think about drawing up a measure to punish those who don’t. Let’s read election handouts carefully and make our decisions today.
*The writer is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin-kook