[Viewpoint] The Democratic Party’s irrelevance

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[Viewpoint] The Democratic Party’s irrelevance

The Democratic Party is virtually invisible. Granted, the party’s lawmakers finally announced their attendance at the National Assembly, so I’m not talking about their physical being. It’s their political being that’s missing. When the average citizen has a conversation over a few drinks at dinner, the Democratic Party is hardly mentioned. We talk about the lives of the late presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and discuss the failed launch of the Naro-1 space rocket. Yet, the Democratic Party has no place in the conversation.

Despite this, the Democratic Party has tried to keep busy. It worked hard to block the media bills, and when the bills passed anyway, party lawmakers staged street protests at the height of the sizzling summer. The unexpected death of former president Roh Moo-hyun kept them worked up, and they played the role of chief mourners at the funeral of former president Kim Dae-jung.

But after trying so hard to be relevant, the Democratic Party seems to have fallen off the radar screen. In a way, the Democratic Party lost its presence after the presidential election defeat two years ago and the general election defeat last year. Even when the approval rating for the Lee Myung-bak administration and the ruling Grand National Party plummeted, the Democratic Party was not mentioned as an alternative.

People still talk about Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung. Their words counted more than the opposition party’s. Now that both Roh and Kim are dead, the Democratic Party’s presence is even more ephemeral.

As President Lee Myung-bak’s centrist pragmatism garners the support of the public, the Democratic Party finds itself in an even more awkward position. Since the centrist policies have begun to be implemented fully, various opinion polls show that the president’s approval rating is now over 40 percent. The administration is expanding its support base among moderates and progressives.

The Democratic Party should have occupied this centrist ground before ceding it to the ruling party. The New Democratic Party Plan issued last May stated the party’s intent to pursue moderate progressive values that transcend ideological discord. However, the plan led to an internal debate over the party’s identity and was never promoted seriously. With President Lee gaining support fro the center, the Democratic Party has lost direction.

The Democratic Party is now an empty house with no key figure or policy. Who should fill the empty house?

The death of former president Kim Dae-jung seems to have ignited a succession battle. Party chairman Chung Se-kyun visited Kim’s birthplace of Haui Island, and former minister Chung Dong-young said he would give a speech in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, though, the latest moves only highlight the emptiness inside the Democratic Party.

It is quite obvious they want to take over the Jeolla provinces and use them as a political springboard now that their leader is gone.

People thought that era of regionalism had ended with the national funeral of former president Kim Dae-jung. What the citizens want from the Democratic Party is not another Kim Dae-jung figure. Probably, Jeolla voters feel the same.

When a house is empty, there is an opportunity to fill it with new things. The Democratic Party should give up the nostalgia for the old and fill the house with completely new values and policies.

Citizens expect to see unconventional innovation from the Democratic Party. Can the Democratic Party break free from the boundaries of the Honam region? Can it be more flexible in its ideology? Can it reject extreme struggles? These changes have to be made by its members.

Party members and policies can never be separated. Only when a new leader proposes future-oriented values and policies and realizes them on his own, will the empty space be filled. The places of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun cannot be filled just by winning the favor of the Jeolla provinces.

The Democratic Party fell off the people’s radar because it failed to fulfill the expectations people had for change. At this crucial political juncture, the Democratic Party desperately needs to undertake a strong effort to reinvent itself.

*The writer is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Won-taek
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