[Outlook] Party reform must be bottom-up

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[Outlook] Party reform must be bottom-up

One of the fundamental reasons Korean politics has made no significant progress lies in the weaknesses of political parties. Now a party’s reason for existence hinges on the political conveniences of leading figures, resulting in parties splitting, merging and forming on a whim.

In addition, parties have indulged in power struggles that have nothing to do with policy, with unclear values and goals. In the 60-year history of the our constitutional government, only three political parties have existed for more than one decade under the same name: the Democratic Republican Party, the New People’s Party and the incumbent Grand National Party.

It is difficult to expect lawmakers working for the good of their parties to become responsible politicians when our parties have not been systematized in a stable manner and are still irresponsible in many ways.

The political party sits at the very root of the institutions of a representative democracy. Representative democracy is a form of government founded on political parties, through which elected representatives of the people present concrete policies encapsulating the values and goals that society is pursuing.

However, our parties are sticking to the old Korean tradition of party politics - depending exclusively on regional loyalties and slandering the opposition simply for the sake of partisan politics, rather than engaging in fair competition to develop sensible policies.

Therefore, their policies are not consistent. One party may pursue certain policies as the ruling party, then object to them when they become the opposition party. The current opposition Democratic Party and the Grand National Party, which was the opposition in the past two administrations, are precisely the same in this regard.

When such parties come into power, drawing up and implementing measures falls mainly to professional bureaucrats who have never been elected through democratic procedures. Thus the link between parties and the administrators who develop policy is weak.

The ruling party - no matter who it is - simply cannot be trusted to administer state affairs. If the approval rating for the ruling party falls, it tends to change its party name, sever ties with the president and try to win elections by taking populist stands.

To our surprise, this tendency has only grown since democratization. The past four presidents since the Roh Tae-woo administration have all resigned from their parties under party pressure near the end of their tenure in office. Our president has been a member of no political party for 31 months of the past two decades. This brings into question both the relevance of political parties, and whether we truly have a democratic power structure in which policy makers are elected by the people.

Korean politics will make no progress unless the current political parties go beyond the realm of regionally based parties and become nationwide, policy-oriented parties. To this end, our parties should choose the values that they are striving to live by and set goals for their national policies in a clearer manner.

They should spare no effort in consistently recruiting young and talented political candidates who share the ideas and goals of the party and will endeavor to realize them.

Research bodies should be deployed to devise concrete strategies to nail down party values and translate them into policies. The party’s leading figures should overcome the temptation to get elected by resorting to local loyalties and stop jumping on the bandwagon of easy politics.

If revolutionary movement in Korean politics grows from the inside, the people will begin to realize the provisions of the political fund act are unrealistically narrow and strict, and will begin to support amending it.

We should encourage young and sensible people to gather with others in their parties and engage in developing policies and holding discussions. They must be the ones to improve our politics so that politicians no longer need to walk the fine line between legal and illegal tactics.

If only wealthy people can take part in legitimate politics, the country cannot go in the right direction. To recover from the chronic ills of the regional party system, we can consider pushing forward with a reorganization of our constituency system or expand the number of proportional representatives.

The people are clamoring for the “Park Yeon-cha list” of corrupt politicians caught in the Taekwang Industrial scandal. This is miserable.

However, it will provide us with a new opportunity to look back and see whether our laws on political funds are detached from the reality of Korean government.

Young, promising politicians feel frustrated, but it is the nation’s people who are ultimately responsible for fixing our politics. If they are happy or angry to see others punished for their crimes, but fail to reflect on the inherent problems in the system, our people will be miserable, and history will repeat itself in a cycle of scandals every time the political winds begin to shift.

*The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Yoon-je
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