[Viewpoint] Let’s go back to a show of hands

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[Viewpoint] Let’s go back to a show of hands

Representative democracy is considered the best governmental form mankind has come up with. The system, in which representatives elected by the people work on the people’s behalf, has proven to be most effective in maintaining equality and civilian rights in modern societies that are diverse and complex.

The founding fathers of Great Britain, the United States and France in the 17th and 18th century also studied the direct suffrage system of ancient Greece. The Athenian system was a direct, not a representative democracy in which every adult male Athenian citizen had the power, and the duty, to appoint officials, pass decrees and try political crimes, all en masse, usually by a simple majority of a show of hands. This random allotment of power - albeit fundamentally democratic - could not assure competency and responsibility in office.

Elections in a representative democracy can produce candidates with more qualifications, wealth, capabilities and nobility than common people in office, thus improving the aptitude of rulers. American political science professor Bernard Manin points out that in representative democracies, elite candidates are preferred by voters because they want to see exceptional and distinctive qualities in their representatives.

The representative democracy has been criticized from an early stage for being oligarchic and undemocratic due to the domination of a small, elite group. Elections also are accompanied by other problems, like corruption and divisive partisanship. Still the system remains vibrant and represents the evolution of democracy - elections, political parties, media politics - over the past two centuries. Most advanced societies are founded on representative democracies and people in North Africa and the Middle East are shedding blood to replace autocracies with democracies. The worth of democracy has made itself self-evident.

We adopted the Western-style election system after a popular uprising in June 1987 and since then elected five presidents and thousands of legislative representatives and local government officials. In theory, we have become a ripe democracy.

But unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving. We cannot remember the last time the National Assembly passed a budget bill or key legislation in a rational and orderly fashion. The opposition is addicted to knee-jerk opposition and the ruling party steamrolls bills relying on a tyranny of the majority. This year’s budget bill was unilaterally passed by the ruling party in December, followed by legislative boycotts and street rallies by the opposition.

The four-river restoration project is near completion after the government and ruling party pushed ahead with it regardless of strong protests from the opposition camp. The political stage has only one big spotlight for the majority party, and a small one for the opposition, and rarely is there debate or compromise.

Our presidents failed to mollify rivals during their campaign, and the rivals refuse to accept election results. Bitterness ensues, perpetuating conflict during their five-year terms. Once elected, presidents suddenly become aloof and hide themselves in their presidential residences to get away from political realities.

There was talk of a summit meeting between the president and heads of the ruling and opposition parties. But the plan went nowhere as the rivals clashed over technicalities. The situation in local governments is no better. Municipal and provincial governments are blocked by local assemblies controlled by the opposition, and whatever the assemblies pass, the mayors and governors of the competing party veto.

Representative democracy in this country exists only on paper. Its fundamental role - to enhance efficient governance by electing figures of distinct capabilities and morality in office - has long been forgotten.

There is no consensus on the need for competence in representatives. Lawmakers came under fire for their attempt to push through a bill to pardon their colleagues for taking illegal funds from an interest group. Ruling and opposition lines blurred when it came to protecting all the legislators who took the money. These representatives, in fact, might have been elected precisely for their excellent abilities to scheme.

Korean democracy is going backwards. We don’t know if it’s due to mismanagement or if the system simply did not agree with Korean culture in the first place. From the current standpoint, the Athenian system of the entire population raising hands to pick leaders and representatives would be more fair and efficient. At least we wouldn’t have to witness the partisan abuses and undemocratic outrages.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Heo Nam-chin
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