[Viewpoint] Deja vu all over again

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[Viewpoint] Deja vu all over again

It is not easy to do the job of a ruling party well. The last administration said the people were its boss, and the current administration vowed to serve the people, too. But in reality, the public was embroiled in ideological disputes in the last administration and is now frustrated and tired of a president who is aloof and deaf to its appeals.

Maybe it’s a matter of how much politicians can do in this country. Members of the ruling party adopted humble expressions after their crushing defeat in recent by-elections, but when they got together to discuss what to do about their plight, the talk was mostly opportunistic and exhibitionistic - calculated to woo votes as they did in the last presidential election in 2007. The ruling party has obviously forgotten how they won their seats in the National Assembly - by capitalizing on the disarray within the last ruling party.

In a recent confabulation designed to restore the public’s confidence in the party, attendees ruminated on the post by-election climate, changes that were needed in the party hierarchy and their odds in the next general elections. The talk centered on themselves, not the voters. They were totally engrossed in the arithmetic - the numbers commanded by political heavyweights Park Geun-hye and Lee Jae-oh (on behalf of President Lee Myung-bak) - and how they would add up in next year’s general and presidential elections.

Of course the usual blame game and a few rounds of pin-the-tail-on-the-scapegoat ensued. They blamed the Blue House for their defeat and argued for keeping a distance from the president. Few could see they are on the same path, headed for the same cliff the Democratic Party fell off four years ago.

Restoring a relationship gone sour cannot be done with token gestures of regret and half-hearted vows to change. Mending a broken relationship always requires sincere resolution and action. Some talked of a fresh start and reproached the party for arrogance, frantically yanking at the drawer in which the party’s empathy and humility are kept.

But the drawer was empty, and amid all the rhetoric, the party shows little signs of changing. It’s an amazing example of deja vu. The Democratic Party was exactly the same four years ago. It also came up empty when the public wanted hope and vision of how the party would reinvent itself.

Politics is manifested in words, and words come from the heart. The people have abandoned the Grand National Party’s vessel. Its crew, with no passengers left, are swapping vain accusations, bickering among themselves like disgruntled spouses with little idea where the ship is heading.

The party confab took place in the presence of professors. In order not to lose favor with elderly colleagues, professors usually feign modesty and respect, but meetings of professors usually bubble with critical rhetoric. And at an academic conference, no one wants to leave until he or she is assured of winning the argument, or be seen to have done so, with one’s own self-righteous logic.

Endless analysis and criticism without concrete solutions are what a council of professors does best. The combination of professors and ruling party members may have been ideal: birds of a feather in self-indulgence, pretension and procrastination.

But they should be polar opposites. Professors earn their livings by lecturing and writing. They have no sense of responsibility or any will to get involved in current affairs. Speeches by professors rarely resonate beyond the university campus.

Politicians, in contrast, make their marks with speech and action. Their speeches should ring out among average citizens, and their actions must have some tangible effect on the people they serve. Politicians are supposed to be at the site of every obstacle that society throws up, helping their constituents overcome it, get around it, or tear it down. But who would follow the vacuous and hapless GNP?

Only Kim Tae-ho, who scored the sole win for the GNP in the recent by-election in Gimhae, had words of common sense: “The public’s anger at the party and the government has hit the ceiling. But you don’t see any desperate endeavors to change, either by the party or the government.”

Kim ended up the victor in an opposition area by staking his entire political life in the race. The conservative former governor of South Gyeongsang ran against Rhyu Si-min, a close confidant of late President Roo Moo-hyun, in Roh’s hometown and still won through perseverance and a sense of mission.

The GNP recently named a new captain. Without a dramatic turn in the direction of its policies, a new passion to serve the people and a determination to weather the next storm together, the ship’s new sail won’t be of much use. The party must find a new direction as fast as possible. It’s current one is headed toward the abyss.

*The writer is professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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