[Viewpoint]A new democracyOn Nov. 11, 1947, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill spoke at the House of Commons: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe,” he said. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.”
What Churchill was talking about was representative democracy, in which a few represent the interests of many.
English voters were so fickle that right after the end of World War II, they chose the Labour Party over Churchill’s Conservative Party, which steered the nation to victory the war.
Now that the right to vote has been extended to all adult men and women in Korea, it is increasingly challenging to represent the opinions of citizens. Yet, representative democracy was fairly effective in the 20th century.
However, in the 21st century, we are witnessing the end of representative democracy. While the crisis of the representative system has been long in coming, it has never been so serious and obvious as it is in today’s Korea. The voters no longer trust the president and the representatives they elected. The president won a landslide victory with a margin of 5 million votes, and the ruling party secured majority of the seats in the National Assembly. However, the voters still don’t trust them to look out for the public interest.
In fact, not all the nation’s citizens actually elected the president and the lawmakers. Some 37 percent of the voters did not exercise their voting rights in the presidential election, and 57 percent did not vote in the general election. Whether they are conservative or liberal, they did not identify with any candidate enough to choose one.
Even those who voted are not satisfied with the representation they are getting, and they aren’t waiting until the next election to punish lawmakers. Even minors who can’t vote are using public demonstrations to make their voices heard.
And it’s all thanks to the power of communication. Today, voters don’t engage in political debates over drinks. Instead, they sit in front of a computer screen. They post their opinions online and create communities with those who share their thoughts. Citizens found a common ground in front of the monitor and came out to City Hall Plaza with candles.
The representatives don’t seem to be able to read the minds of the voters. The president has ignored signs of public discontent since the transition committee days. The ruling party is busy watching the president and repeating the Blue House’s position like a mockingbird. The opposition party has taken to the streets. They see citizens’ fury as an opportunity to recover from election defeats. They sneaked into candlelight rallies but received sharp glares instead of support.
Shocked by the direct action of the voters and future voters, the government proposed a 10 trillion won-plan to help the economy and is waiting for the candles to go out. It is nervously contemplating a cabinet and government reshuffle to comfort the angry public. At Seoul’s request, even the president of the United States is offering help. Korea has turned into a ground for direct democracy, with individual opinions being taken into account through communication and actions.
With the president deaf to citizens’ complaints, Koreans are confronting the government personally.
This might be inevitable as society becomes more open, where individuality and diversity are respected. Futures studies expert John Naisbitt says politicians are not needed in such a society. There is no need for a representative when citizens communicate directly with the government.
However, pitfalls are everywhere. As we can witness today, minority voices are often neglected. Sensational and sometimes fabricated videos incite the public, and populism often ignores reality and fails to offer alternative solutions.
We cannot light candles every time there is an issue. After all, the voters ultimately pay the costs the rallies incur. What is more serious than money is divided national opinion. We can always make up for financial losses but wounds do not heal so easily.
Before it is too late, we should find a new paradigm connecting politics and voters. The politicians are on the verge of losing their jobs, so they should take the initiative. We have to find a better way to move forward, unless we have better ideas than Churchill.
*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom