[Viewpoint] An electoral rebuke to arroganceWas it an illusion? The approval ratings of more than 50 percent for President Lee Myung-bak and the high popularity of the Grand National Party in various polls before the local elections have been revealed as being fragile, like a sand castle. A silent majority that was not reflected in the polls has expressed itself in the elections.
I wondered why they were silent. The polls, of course, can be faulted because they failed to unearth the silent voices, but one thing is clear. Recently, there has been a belief that one should not reveal one’s true feelings about political issues. Voices critical of the president and government appeared subject to restrictions by the authorities, including the police, prosecution and the National Election Commission. The recent case of celebrity Kim Je-dong’s stepping down from a TV show because he publicly supported the opposition also shows the oppressive atmosphere in which one fears he or she may lose their job if those in power disapprove of the person.
Given the situation, many probably felt uncomfortable frankly answering pollsters’ questions on whether the president was good or bad and whether they will vote for the ruling or opposition party. The people’s true beliefs, which were not expressed due to the arrogant social atmosphere, were poured out through the local elections.
As I watched the election outcome, I began to think that the current administration is too ignorant about the changes that have taken place in our society since democratization. “The decade we have lost” was the slogan of the Grand National Party in the last presidential election, but it has now boomeranged on President Lee and the ruling party. Politically, the last decade might be described as being a “lost period,” but people carried on with their lives during that period and adapted to the new environment. But the current administration really believed in the past and tried to turn back the clock.
A taxi driver whom I met in Masan a while ago told me that he did not respond when passengers brought up the subject of politics. He said he remained tight-lipped because he was afraid he would be arrested for saying something wrong. When I heard his remarks, I could not help but laugh, but it also reflects the public sentiment that many people feel their civil liberties have been largely infringed upon in comparison to a few years ago.
When the Korean national football team lost in an international match, we once said “It’s all because of Roh Moo-hyun.” Such an experience of criticizing the authorities, including the president, without reservation can not be forgotten when a new administration enters office. Furthermore, it was the first time that young voters, who grew up during the democratization period, experienced an administration in which the government appeared to try to restrict freedom of political expression and freedom of assembly.
The government’s strategy to make the Cheonan’s sinking an issue in the local election campaign also backfired because the politicians failed to properly understand the changes in our society. The ruling party believed that the escalating tensions between the two Koreas would unite the public behind the government, like during the cold war period. But over the past 10 years, the people have not lived in a situation in which the possibility of a war is overtly discussed. The experiences of the last decade made the voters perceive the security crisis in a completely different way. The rising military tensions particularly angered young voters in their 20s and 30s, who are subject to military conscription, and they headed to the polling stations to largely cast ballots against the ruling party.
The Grand National Party enjoyed landslide victories in the 2006 local elections, the 2007 presidential election and the 2008 legislative election and the consecutive overwhelming victories were undeniably the public judgment on the Roh administration’s maladministration. And yet, the victories do not necessarily mean that the public wants to deny all the changes that took place during the Roh administration and return to the authoritarian era of the Cold War.
The Grand National Party had managed to concentrate the powers of the national assembly, the central government and local governments in their hands and such a concentration resulted in arrogance and blinded the party to properly reading the changes that have taken place and affected public sentiment.
As the latest local elections show, the silent majority’s evaluation is extremely cold and strict. Unless President Lee and the Grand National Party change their style of management fundamentally, the latest defeat may not be their last. Come to think of it, the Uri Party’s fall began from the 2006 local elections.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Won-taek