[Viewpoint] Tragedy eclipsing the local elections

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[Viewpoint] Tragedy eclipsing the local elections

The June local elections will take place in less than a month. In normal times, the nation heats up for this event, but this year, with the Cheonan incident still unsettled, the excitement is lacking.

More than a month has passed since the tragic sinking, and the probe has made some progress. But the shock was too large for people to forget after only a few weeks.

I still remember the weeping mother of a dead sailor who said, “I am sorry I made you go to the military because we are poor. If we had money, I would never have sent you into the Navy.”

The Cheonan’s sinking may be a “conjuncture” - what historian Fernand Braudel calls the reinterpretation and heightened significance of an event when it is considered in tandem with other incidents.

The Cold War order of Northeast Asia has been showing cracks since the late 1980s. As it broke down, Korean society adopted a policy of engagement known as Sunshine Policy, moving toward openness and interaction with North Korea.

The Cheonan disaster has made us agonize over the bright and dark sides of this policy. It is hard to find an alternative to it, even though it is undeniable that we are vividly witnessing just how unstable peace in Northeast Asia actually is.

The situation is so serious that the nation cannot pay full attention to the local elections. While the sinking was a national issue, the local election is a political one. All national issues must be understood within a political framework. But a grave national security situation is a master frame that overwhelms the lower frame of the local elections, which normally serve as a midterm evaluation of the administration.

It is at this juncture, with South Koreans’ attention fixed on the master frame, that Kim Jong-il began his visit to China, bringing about subtle changes within Northeast Asia.

It is hard to forecast how the Cheonan’s sinking will influence the local elections. The results may fluctuate wildly, depending on what is determined to have caused the disaster. The conservatives may come on strong, or the crisis may unite liberal voters. It’s also possible that the sinking - a national concern on a whole different level - may have only a limited influence on the elections.

But I want to note that these circumstances already have caused the upcoming local elections to unfold in a very different manner from elections of the past. Normally, the three factors that determine the outcome of an election are confrontation patterns, candidates and policies. This year, none of these seem to be playing a decisive role.

Looking first at confrontation patterns, we believed the local elections will be a midterm evaluation of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Because the presidential election and legislative election do not regularly alternate in Korean politics, local elections were often seen as a political trial, and a confrontation between those who argue for stability in national governance and others who want to judge the administration was always forecast.

When the elections draw very near, this confrontation frame will eventually be seen, but it’s not on the horizon at the moment.

The candidates are already visible. Interestingly, the Grand National Party opted to back incumbent officials for re-election to major posts within the capital region, while the opposition party selected former Roh Moo-hyun government officials and representatives of the 386 Generation to fight against the GNP candidates.

In this sense, the local elections can be seen as a return match between the Lee and Roh administrations, and the one-year anniversary of Roh’s death will likely have some influence.

In terms of policies, no one issue has emerged as a defining controversy yet. The free school-lunch program arose during the winter as a symbolic policy battle, but it has lost its momentum after the Cheonan’s sinking.

During the remaining campaign period, competing visions and policies will be aired on television debates, but it’s possible that the political parties will meet at the ballot box without clearly distinguishable policies.

Although elections are the foundation of democracy, the upcoming vote will likely take place amid indifference, rather than deciding a fierce political battle or an energetic cultural festival. And that’s a pity.

For me, Hannah Arendt, who studied political sociology, is one of the most influential political theorists. She wrote that labor, work and action are the fundamental activities of human life. Among them, the most important is the action of communication - in other words, politics.

Although Arendt was skeptical about representative democracy, she did not deny it. Elections and voting are the basis of politics and we must be reminded about this once again in this gloomy May.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.

By Kim Ho-ki
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