[Viewpoint] The politics of alternatives

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[Viewpoint] The politics of alternatives

Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) was a legendary conqueror of southern Africa. There are two theories about his family life. The first is that he killed his wives when they became pregnant. The second is that he never had a wife and never had sex. The two theories lead to one explanation: Shaka Zulu pursued absolute power and was afraid that if he had children, they would threaten his pursuit.

Shaka Zulu is an extreme example of being faithful to the saying, “You cannot share power even with your own child.”

But politics is a process of sharing power whether you want to or not. A leader not only has to share power during his rule but also needs to prepare an alternative in the name of a successor. After all, you cannot live nor hold power forever.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is on the verge of losing his power, is known for eliminating any threat to his rule. He never had a No. 2 to share his authority. His greed and intolerance made Egyptian citizens unhappy. If he had cared about the community as a whole, he would have appointed an alternate, whether he liked it or not.

A leader who reluctantly comes up with such a person may be insecure all the time. In “48 Laws of Power” by American writer Robert Greene, the first law is “Never outshine the master.” If you want to seize power, you must prove that you are capable but should not make the incumbent insecure. If the leader feels fear and anxiety, you will be eliminated and your chance of taking power will be lost.

Whether it is international politics or domestic politics, every kind of politics is a process of finding alternates. Whether an alternate succeeds depends on whether you have one or not and how qualified that person is.

For countries within its sphere of influence, the United States has intervened when there was a viable alternative leader and stayed away if there wasn’t. The United States is said to have considered supporting a coup against Korean President Syngman Rhee but decided against it because no alternative could be found.

The United States had previously been tolerant of the dictatorship and corruption of President Mubarak because Washington decided that there was no alternative or successor.

Lately, however, the United States has been supportive of the democratization protests in Egypt because Mohamed ElBaradei has emerged as a possible alternative.

The politics of alternatives is essentially politics of uncertainty. Under a monarchy or dictatorship, the person in power feels insecure if there is an alternative to his leadership. In a democratic society, the people are the ones who are insecure.

Voters are unsure as to whether the next president and ruling party will perform better than the incumbents. However, the merit of a democracy is that it is a political system to manage the politics of alternatives and minimize uncertainly.

Now, we are faced with the politics of alternatives on both the domestic and international fronts. The question is whether China can be an alternative to the hegemony of the United States. This is a question that has made the world insecure.

The main players, the United States and China, are anxious as well. Deng Xiaoping advocated that a country “hide brightness, [and] nourish obscurity” as a diplomatic policy so as not to make the United States uneasy. He asked his successors to keep that policy for 100 years, but the direction of the country has already changed. China has begun to speak up in the international community.

What will the world do when China seeks hegemony more aggressively? Countries may ask China to outshine the United States.

If China is able to assure the world over its grievances with the United States while also removing insecurities about China’s rise, China will automatically secure its position as the new power.

Unlike Robert Greene’s first law of power, political parties and presidential hopefuls in Korea need to demonstrate they can outperform the incumbent president and the ruling party. These days, there is growing anxiety within the political sphere because the focus of politics is shifting from growth to welfare.

The person or party who is able to assuage these insecurities will be the one to win voters. When we have a solid alternative, South Korea will be the only option for the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

*The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Kim Hwan-young
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