[Viewpoint] Voters, head to the polls

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[Viewpoint] Voters, head to the polls

The weather is still wintry yet the hot political season is already upon us. Candidates for the June 2 gubernatorial and education superintendents finished registration earlier this month. Aspiring candidates and political parties are trying for some good PR ahead of the Lunar New Year’s holiday. Many will fly under the radar during holiday family gatherings. The elections will serve as a midterm evaluation for the Lee Myung-bak government and their result will likely set the tone for the future power paradigm as well the 2012 general and presidential elections. Both the ruling and opposition camps will inevitably make all-out efforts to win.

Foreboding signs already show that the upcoming elections will likely serve as a contest among central political parties rather than candidates vying to develop their electoral regions. The run-of-the-mill pre-election omens - accusations, inner conflicts over party recommendations, patronage and bribery rumors - are surfacing. The rituals are partly expected but feared. They will surely further dismay voters.

The average 70 percent voter turnout in presidential elections fell to 63 percent in 2007 and the average 60 percent turnout in general elections slipped to 46.1 percent in 2008. Just about half of the voter population - 51.6 percent - turned up at polling stations during the May 31 gubernatorial elections in 2006 and it is feared there will be fewer this year.

Under the new election system, voters are required to cast ballots for eight offices. Voters are likely to shun election day out of unfamiliarity or annoyance. Many among those who do make it to the polls will likely tick the names out of habit without bothering to study the candidates. Disenchantment in politics and low voter turnout portends a crisis for a democratic society. Voters’ forgoing their rights is a black spot for grassroots democracy.

The initial fault lies with the political circle. Look at the options on the voters’ table. They have on one hand a government and ruling party smitten by recent improved economic data flashing rhetorical “moderate” and “public-friendly” policies even as the number of jobless climbs and the financial pinch on ordinary households worsens. On the other hand, the main opposition party has failed to reinvent itself or come up with a single impressive policy alternative even after a landslide election defeat. Voters cannot be blamed for their weariness in politics.

The talk of reform-minded dissidents joining forces caught the attention of politically disillusioned voters. But the outlook for their consolidation looks bleak with the Democratic Party stubbornly sitting on their high horses. Low turnout is inevitable if election choices remain limited to the ruling and main opposition parties.

A pupil of Confucius once asked his teacher how he viewed politicians of his day. Confucius contemptuously answered that there was no need to remark on the narrow-minded, vulgar lot. Politicians two millennia later are worse, having added low moral standards to their resumes. But if voters who are licensed to judge these politicians turn aloof and silent, the ugly political game, rules and players will remain unchanged.

An example of the disastrous fallout from a low voter turnout was the 2008 election for superintendent for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Candidate Jou Kyong-bok, supported by dissident groups, was defeated by conservative rival Kong Jung-tack by a narrow margin even after winning at 17 out of 25 electoral districts. He had been widely popular yet won votes mostly from areas where there was low turnout.

Kong, in contrast, swept ballots from three rich southern Seoul areas where a majority turned out to vote. Kong was stripped of his office after charges of election corruption. We cannot know what voters of the three Gangnam constituencies are thinking now, but those who surrendered their voting rights have no right to criticize those who bothered to exercise them.

Prosecutors have started guarding against election violations. But it is up to voters to sift out the incompetent and immoral candidates.

We must teach politicians that self-serving candidates and parties cannot win. We voters can turn elections into a contest of platforms instead of a marketplace for one-time rhetoric. We must remind ourselves that the gubernatorial elections have been hard-won by painful democratic struggles. The display of collective intelligence by voters is the only hope for bringing change to the political climate and our society.

* The writer is a professor in the visual media department at Seoul Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Mi-ra
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