[Viewpoint] The hidden vote finds its voice

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[Viewpoint] The hidden vote finds its voice

The aftermath of the June 2 local elections is lingering. Despite worries that the significance of the elections will be diluted by the series of political waves during the campaign period, their impact will actually be strong for a long time. As Gyorgy Lukacs said, “The journey has ended, but a road started.”

Why did the ruling party fare so poorly at the polls? It was because voters finally showed their hidden sentiments.

Just think of it. Voters had to consider a huge variety of factors at these elections. On June 7, I gave a lecture to Democratic Party lawmakers talking about the outcome, and what it means for the future.

In addition to the economic recession and the advancement of the information society, other key factors - such as the campaign to judge the Lee Myung-bak administration, the consolidation of opposition candidates and sentiment for late former President Roh Moo-hyun - all combined to lead the DP to victory, I told them.

From a political-sociological point of view, the hidden votes were the most interesting phenomenon of the elections. Hidden votes are the margin between pre-election polls and actual votes. In other words, they are the ballots that were not counted in the opinion polls but were cast for the opposition candidates during the real elections.

Hidden votes are not, of course, a new phenomenon. Opinion polls often miss some votes supporting the opposition, and the hidden votes did play a significant role in the recent legislative by-elections. But they attracted particularly keen interest in the last election, because they amounted to well more than 10 percent than anticipated by the final opinion polls.

The hidden votes are important in two ways. First, they showed the hidden side of real politics. Hidden votes cannot be easily explained by faulty opinion poll methods and low response rates to surveys. Those who gave no answers in polls may have hidden their political opinions out of fear of suffering disadvantage if they voiced their opinions in surveys that recorded their phone numbers. Perhaps the investigation of Internet blogger “Minerva” - who posted a dark economic scenario after the financial crisis hit Korea - and the Twitter controversy before the elections restricted freedom of expression. The liberal voters certainly felt the changes.

Second, the surveys’ impact on real politics was also significant. When voters make their final decision, they are inevitably influenced by opinion polls, consciously or unconsciously. That is why the leading political party hopes for a “bandwagon effect” while the losing party seeks the “underdog effect” when utilizing the outcomes of the surveys. But problems arise when the surveys portray distorted sentiments. As a result, such surveys wrongly influence not only the voters, but also the development of democracy.

I am particularly interested in the symbolic significance of the hidden votes. I am concerned that Korea is not moving toward an open society but going back to a closed society. A closed society, where the members’ political opinions are hidden, is never desirable. It fosters the growth of indifference and distrust, and that will eventually ruin the value of a community and undermine the social capital that supports economic growth and democracy.

We do not wish for a society in which transparency increases with globalization and information, but whose members shut their hearts and hide in their own worlds.

This week, President Lee Myung-bak addressed the nation and promised to reform his government. Two aspects of the speech particularly caught my attention. Lee promised to listen to the people’s desires for change. He also promised to look for new ways to improve communications with the younger generation, which wants more freedom in cyberspace.

Before listening to the people’s voice and trying to communicate, the government should make a greater effort to turn Korea into an open society. The government must respect that freedom of expression must be expanded to meet the demands of the information age. The government must not rule, but serve the people.

Changes for the Sejong City plan and the four rivers restoration project are important, but in the middle of his term it is more desirable for Lee to think about how he runs the nation.

The controversy surrounding the hidden votes reminded me of “The Hidden God” by philosopher and sociologist Lucien Goldmann. According to Goldmann, God did not disappear, but was hiding, and in his absence pessimism reigns.

Goldmann’s literary theory, of course, cannot be applied directly to Korean politics. But it is clear that at election time public sentiment is God, and a society where God is hidden is never desirable. We need to strive toward a society in which God - and public sentiment - are seen freely.


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

by Kim Ho-ki
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