How will the year 2008 be remembered? From the late spring through the summer, the entire country was in turmoil due to candlelight vigils. After that, the global financial crisis hit the country. Everybody’s cooperation was required, but in the National Assembly, lawmakers were battling it out with electric saws and sledgehammers. The National Assembly seems to be a place where immature, impatient people go to fight.
Candles and sledgehammers look like two different things, but they are not. They illustrate the essence of our politics. The people lit up their candles because the National Assembly failed to fulfill its duties. The government didn’t want to examine the details of the import deal for U.S. beef because it wanted a free trade agreement with the United States to go through as soon as possible.
If the National Assembly had done its job properly, the issue could have been solved within the Assembly. But the legislature failed to keep the administration in check. To put it more precisely, the Assembly has failed to play the role it is supposed to. Opposition party members even visited protesters to coax them on with flattery.
And now, we have a National Assembly dominated by sledgehammers. Ironically, the whole purpose of the Assembly is to resolve social conflicts in a peaceful and democratic way. If masses form whenever an important issue arises, the damage will be tremendous. The masses follow an impatient, simple logic. They burn down everything in sight and then disappear. They are not productive, organized or peaceful.
As the National Assembly fails to do what it is supposed to do, civic protests have become commonplace. This is a vicious circle, and that’s why there is no difference between protest candles and sledgehammers.
As the National Assembly fails to reach the people, the president ends up clashing directly with civic movements. As the institution that represents the people doesn’t actually reflect the people’s opinions, the president thinks he can meet the people directly, and is tempted to pursue populism. It was moving when President Lee Myung-bak wrapped his scarf around an old lady in Garak Market. The president visited more than 200 low-income people and consoled them, saying he had also cleaned the street and been a vendor. But why can’t he do the same to the members of the opposition? He can’t just blame the National Assembly for not passing bills. Persuading the National Assembly is the president’s job.
The president hands out orders, saying ministers should visit the field more often and public employees must work faster. Orders are necessary, but the president must live a symbolic existence. Concentrating on economic issues doesn’t necessarily restore the economy. The opposition party earned some support from the people, and therefore its opinions must be reflected in state affairs. The president must be able to see the entire country objectively and form a vision of the future after the current economic agony. If the National Assembly fails like this, there is no guarantee that there won’t be more mass protests next spring. As seen in this year’s demonstrations, a small spark can cause protests to flare up. There must be a peaceful atmosphere in which the political realm can cooperate with society in order for anything, even the economy, to work. If the president wants to be good at economics, he must first be good at politics.
The National Assembly’s failure is the result of our historic legacy. Under authoritarian rule, the National Assembly was used to mimic democracy, but its functions were nothing but a formality. Regionalism has also played a part. As three main politicians represented their hometowns, political parties haven’t grown much. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let the National Assembly be a stage for violence. When an institution meant to establish the law violates the law, we can’t have constitutionalism, which is the key to democracy. Violence leads to more violence. Just as our current lawmakers learned violence from their seniors, if lawmakers’ secretaries learn the same thing and later become lawmakers, there is no hope for us. In the recent violence, the National Assembly denied its own existence. When we next evaluate bills, violence in the National Assembly must be addressed. The Assembly and its members must act in a way that is worthy of the institution.
The president must respect the opposition party and must not think of time spent persuading them as a waste. He should not get himself into trouble by hastening procedures, like he did with the negotiations regarding beef imports. Direction is more important than speed. He must get the opposition party’s help in passing important bills. He should wrap scarves around opposition party members, just as he did to the lady in the market. That is democracy.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk