[Viewpoint] Deciding whose interests matter

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[Viewpoint] Deciding whose interests matter

Imagine a candidate in a legislative election who is running on a platform of working for the country’s sake rather than the constituency’s.

Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke resisted demands from his constituents in Bristol, then Britain’s second-largest trading city, and campaigned for free trade with Ireland in May 1778.

“If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record as an example to future representatives of the Commons of England that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong,” Burke said.

Burke took the firm position that his priorities lay with the greater good of Great Britain over the regional interests of the constituents he represented.

Burke’s speech remains resonant and famous because it is hard for politicians in any period and country to stick to one’s principles. In our country, conflicts of interest between local and national not only appear in general elections but in presidential elections as well.

President Lee Myung-bak has once again overturned a campaign vow - a new airport in the southern part of the country, where his hometown is. The president, to borrow from Burke’s words, may have wanted to be “one man daring to resist desires of his constituents” for the good of the nation.

Lee’s peers from the southern region in the ruling party are naturally upset, with some even demanding the president’s ouster from the party.

But estrangement with the ruling party and renunciation of the Grand National Party’s campaign pledges are hardly new. Last year, Lee exacerbated the strife with representatives from North and South Chungcheong and the factional division with former presidential rival Park Geun-hye by attempting to revise legislation stamped by Park to build a second administrative city in the Chungcheong region dubbed Sejong City. The alternative plan to appease Chungcheong voters - turning the area into a science technology business belt - is also brewing a pot of conflict.

These events have been highly controversial because they were populist campaign promises used to draw votes but were broken upon winning. Constituents feel betrayed and manipulated by the politician who courted them with a lucrative campaign proposal and walked out on the deal once elected. It is not only a presidential election platform. Voters have been betrayed by ruling party members who broke their promise to build huge, affordable commuter town complexes.

The fault initially lies with the president for failing to keep half-baked campaign promises. Strong protests from the southern region do not simply encompass feelings of betrayal, but underscores the fundamental changes in conditions for conflict. The social rift during the 1980s and 1990s derived from resentment from North and South Jeolla in southwestern Korea, as most industrialization and modernization were centered in North and South Gyeongsang in the southeast, home of most of the governmental power at the time.

The latest uproar over the new airport, Sejong City and a science business zone contains broad resentment from other regions. Seoul and its satellite cities have been flourishing, with high-speed railway and other advances in transportation infrastructure, reinforcing the capital’s advantage in every field - medical, shopping, finance, culture and education. The other provinces, in comparison, feel left out and poor.

During an election season, when every vote counts, constituents are tempted to use their voting clout to make ambitious demands of the central government. But they nonetheless come to a rude awakening - as was the case with the incumbent administration time after time. Constituents realize that their representatives are not wizards who can make their wishes come true with their magic wands. Politicians have not agreed to their demands because they are feasible, but because they are expedient.

The only way for voters to be divorced from vicious cycles of populist campaign promises and the ensuing disillusionment would be by scrutinizing whether the candidate’s broad regional vision is workable and feasible instead of clinging to the specifics of every platform. It is most important to judge whether the promises made by a presidential candidate can be fulfilled during the single five-year term.

Otherwise, voters should be equally bold and tenacious and select a candidate who blatantly vows to regard national interests above regional ones, just as Burke did.

*Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.


By Kang Won-taek
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