[Viewpoint] Confusion marked local election

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[Viewpoint] Confusion marked local election

Last Wednesday was extremely long. The nail-biting ballot count that kept election watchers up all night was as dramatic as any action film and as tense as a down-to-the-wire sports game.

The election results were surprising in all aspects. They confounded expectations of a low turnout as 54.5 percent of registered voters went to the polls, while they dashed the predictions of political analysts and opinion surveys.

The circumstances had pointed to a sure win for the ruling conservative party due to security concerns in the wake of North Korea’s attack on the naval warship Cheonan and relatively weak solidarity among opposition candidates.

As a result, the election outcome was seen as a defeat for the conservative ruling party and a triumphant comeback for the liberal opposition camp.

The same political pundits and media that bet on a landslide victory for the Grand National Party now lashed out at the GNP for its failure.

They accused the GNP of expecting a free ride on the “North wind” of national security concerns and for discounting the unfathomable loyalty of voters to the late President Roh Moo-hyun.

Political observers also said the voting result was a manifestation of public anger against the government’s domineering attitude in railroading multi-billion-dollar projects to dredge and dam four major rivers and overturning the proposal for Sejong City as an administrative capital without gaining public support.

But what about the voters? What had really motivated them in making their selection? Were they so disgusted with the government as to choose a political party, or reject a certain political party to be more precise, rather than selecting the best candidate for local office?

Even those who usually lack any party preferences unanimously said they looked at the party rather than the candidate in making their choice in the recent election.

On the morning of election day, I spread out on the table the pile of campaign booklets for the candidates in Seoul.

There were five for the Seoul mayor candidates, four for the local district head, two for the metropolitan councilmen, five for the district councilmen, ten for the proportional councilmen seats, two for proportional district councilmen, seven for the metropolitan superintendents for education and three for metropolitan education councilors.

As a citizen of Gwangjin District in Seoul, I had to study 38 booklets. Each booklet had several pages extolling a list of accomplishments and promises of a rosy future with ambitious plans for the city and district. Everyone came across as impeccable, making the choice even harder.

Voters should choose a candidate based on his or her capability, capacity, vision and policy plans rather than their appearance, personality, image or political party affiliation.

But they can only do so when all the policies pledged by the candidates are credible and feasible. Voters should also be able to compare and contrast the various candidates’ election platforms to decide which they like more.

But each candidate listed more than 20 policy plans that were more or less the same to one another.

Therefore, it was difficult to tell who was who unless we looked at the candidate’s party affiliation.

Upon entering the voting booth, numerous decisions awaited voters. He or she would inevitably check off the candidates according to party order.

Of course, we all strive to make the best possible choices. The more we research and study information, the better we can arrive at the right choice. No doubt preliminary research and investigative work is especially crucial before making important decisions.

However, if the conditions are unnecessarily too complicated and difficult to make a decision, we can arrive at the opposite result.

According to psychological studies, a person overwhelmed with information on a specific topic tends to give up making a reasonable judgment. Instead, he or she makes a decision based on intuition, emotions and personal preferences.

They can also decide not to make a decision altogether.

The stress from poring over information is increased when faced with important decisions, hampering the ability to assimilate data.

Information overload is often a reason for arriving at bad decisions.

Now that the election is over, it left a bitter taste in the mouth. It isn’t that I’m unhappy about the election results or that the candidate I voted for failed to get elected.

It’s just that something feels fundamentally wrong.

All the news on TV and newspapers talked about the surprising results and their repercussions on the ruling party and conservatives.

But they remained mum on whether the winners are fit for their posts. I hope I am proven wrong.

Still, I cannot stop worrying that the victors may squander their terms fighting with the government rather than working for their districts, cities and provinces.

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

By Sung Young-shin
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