[Viewpoint] Democracy’s growing pains still hurt

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[Viewpoint] Democracy’s growing pains still hurt

April is the month for Koreans to think, at least once, about democracy. Half a century ago, students led the April 19 Revolution to end the autocracy of Syngman Rhee and uphold a freer regime.

It was a beginning. The democratic constitution and government born of the revolution were destroyed by the military coup the next year. In the late 1970s, the oppressive rule of Park Chung Hee, which was even harsher than the Rhee government, began. And yet the democratic ideology of the April 19 Revolution survived. Korea finally was democratized after the June civic movement of 1987. It is our duty today to think seriouslyabout our current position and the future tasks of democracy.

A foreign journalist who covered Korea during the period of dictatorship once likened the possibility of a Korean democracy to a rose blooming in a trash can. By September 2008, a research team from the Economist magazine ranked Korea’s democracy 28th among 167 nations worldwide. Korea’s democracy has achieved much. Nonetheless, Koreans measure their government against the standards of advanced nations, and they are not satisfied with the current level of democracy here.

Korea’s electoral system has improved greatly, and it is important that it continue to do so. Today, we have fair and free elections, compared to the elections under dictatorial regimes including the March 15, 1960, presidential election, whose rigged outcome prompted the April 19 Revolution. And yet, politicians compete based on party lines, not on policies that would move the country forward.

There is also the possibility, and reality, of corruption. Only recently, an incumbent county head was arrested after trying to bribe the district’s assembly representative.

It is important that we improve the quality of civic participation. During the last legislative election, voter turnout was lower than 50 percent, revealing a crisis of participation. It appears that the June 2 local elections won’t attract much more. Although local politics should be focused on citizens’ everyday life, political parties’ mudslinging has stolen the voters’ attention.

The problem the nation faces today is a desperate need for healthy civic participation. While the people must never ignore the public interest, they must also respect law and order. Without such awareness, critics will call civic participation “ochlocracy” - mob rule - or “excessive democracy.”

The people’s freedom must be improved continuously with balanced views of public order. Under the dictatorship and military government of the past, state power was extremely forceful and oppressive. According to the international nongovernmental organization Freedom House, Koreans today enjoy the highest level of political rights and the second-highest basic rights to freedom. Yet the police authorities’ response to public gatherings and demonstrations, the freedom of expression on the Internet, the friction between the government and some media, the National Security Law, labor unions’ organization and activities, and discrimination against women and minorities are areas in which the nation needs to improve.

The legislative, administrative and judiciary branches of the state must carry out their roles more effectively and transparently to earn the people’s trust. To this end, a constitutional amendment is needed to better stabilize democracy.

Politicians’ current styles must change to improve Korean politics into a high-quality democracy. In the Netherlands and Switzerland, consociationalism was achieved despite deep social, economic and cultural ruptures because political leaders made mutual concessions. If Korean politicians continue their wars at the National Assembly and form stopgap alliances and splits for the sake of their own interests, advanced democratic politics will be nothing more than an empty aim.

Twenty-three years have passed since Korea became a democratic country. Democracy as a political protocol that guarantees open competition, civic participation and public rights and freedoms has not yet taken root here. It is important that we strengthen the procedures of democracy. In addition, we must simultaneously develop substantive democracy to improve the people’s social rights to economic equity, social justice and welfare.

Without a procedural democracy, efforts to promote a substantive democracy will leave us open to another form of dictatorship. And when the society treats substantive democracy lightly, politicians may emerge to exploit populism, threaten procedural democracy and endanger the people’s rights.

Korea’s democracy is an important public asset, created through endless struggles and movements since the April 19 Revolution. This month, all Koreans must contemplate what we must do to move forward this valuable democracy.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


By Park Chan-wook

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