[Viewpoint]Second chancesWe don’t have to go back very far. Any Korean who had the right to vote in the 1980s and ’90s remembers what elections were like at the time.
Neighbors would be invited to a barbecue restaurant for a feast and without question, a person campaigning for a certain candidate would turn up. He would promise the candidate would do his best for the people and ask them to vote for the candidate.
Before leaving, the campaigner would sometimes hand over cash, usually about 50,000 won ($50), wrapped in an envelope. Of course, the candidates were not philanthropists. Once they were elected to the National Assembly, they could get back 10 times, even 100 times, the money they spent on their campaign. The politicians were no fools.
The corrupt politicians influenced everyone watching nearby, including the reporters and journalists. In the mid ’90s, I was an accredited reporter for the New Korea Party, the predecessor of the Grand National Party. I had the chance to witness a lavish spending spree by the party, headquartered in a fancy building.
Where did the money come from? Naturally, they squeezed the money from entrepreneurs. In return, they handed out favors to the companies. I was concerned about the practice, but I have to admit I rode the trend. I am still ashamed and embarrassed by my position. In 1997, Korea received an economic rescue package from the International Monetary Fund. I think the country’s political corruption caused the financial crisis.
In a sense, the Roh Moo-hyun administration made at least one great accomplishment. The money-driven elections go back all the way to the 1950s, when the candidates bought rice wine and cheap rubber shoes. That continued to the 1990s, when voters were treated to barbecues and picnics.
The Roh administration ended that shameful tradition. While I do not think President Roh did a good job, I have to recognize his contributions to a better election culture.
Some might argue it was not because of the president, but rather because the times have changed and the level of the voters has improved. Well, let’s look at the April 9 general elections. In general, I cannot say the level of the voters fell off. However, the hellish specter of the money election did return.
You might say the election was far cleaner than it had been in the past. The statistics indicate less corruption. In the 17th general elections, 2,241 people were booked on charges of election irregularities, and 275 were placed under arrest.
This time, 894 were booked and 34 were arrested. There were only one-tenth of the irregularities compared with the 17th elections. However, the irregularities for the 17th general elections were mostly charges related to the overheated party primaries. However, this time, 224 candidates were caught giving money and presents to voters during the short campaign period.
Ten years ago, the Grand National Party was labeled as a corrupt and lost power. It sold its fancy headquarters building, including the training institute, and settled in a tent. The politicians shed tears and begged for forgiveness. The citizens believed the apologies were sincere and rewarded their repentance.
At one point, the Grand National Party boasted a 60 percent approval rating. However, the candidates accused of running money-driven election campaigns were mostly conservative candidates affiliated with the Grand National Party and Pro-Park United Party. How should we, the voters, interpret the situation?
The 31-year-old Yang Jeong-nye got the No. 1 proportional representation slot from the Pro-Park United Party. She said to the reporters, with a smile: “As you see, I have been elected the youngest lawmaker. The Pro-Park United Party highly appreciates the fact I am a young woman.”
Frankly, I think the choice was absurd. The proportional representation is designed to give representation to the socially weak, such as the handicapped or representatives from various backgrounds, to reflect various voices of the citizens. Who does Yang, whose educational background, career and the course of accumulating wealth are questionable, represent? Cynics say that if she paid 100 million won to become a lawmaker, she won the lottery.
A member of the National Assembly receives the same treatment as ministers, and is provided with six aides and an office in the National Assembly Hall, various expenses and benefits. If such a position can be bought, it is a lucrative business.
Let’s come to a conclusion. The progressives fall because of the inner division and the conservatives collapse because of corruption. The conservatives seem to have sweet memories of corruption. But the voters are not fools, either. We suffered not long ago because of corrupt conservatives. We gave them another chance because the conservatives begged for forgiveness. If they enjoy corruption again, we will not tolerate it again. The conservatives cannot be sure they will be in power five years later. It is up to how they perform.
*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chong-hyuk