[Viewpoint] Democracy is in crisis

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[Viewpoint] Democracy is in crisis

A sense of powerlessness and failure - that the situation won’t improve no matter who is elected - is spreading like an ominous fog in the democratic world. Dissatisfaction, disappointment and anger over politicians are shared in nearly all democratic nations.

From Washington to London, Tokyo to Athens, Rome to Seoul, it is so hard to find a politician who is applauded by the public. People would vote for new faces, hoping change of leadership would bring improvement, but the anticipation never fails to end in disappointment. It is not an exaggeration to say that democracy is in crisis.

The downgrade of the U.S. credit rating is a virtual bankruptcy of trust in Washington politicians. Over the issue of raising the debt ceiling, Republicans and Democrats engaged in a mud fight. When the nation was on the verge of defaulting, ruling and opposition parties were caught in a chicken game with the nation at stake. A New York Times and CBS poll showed that an absolute majority of Americans, about 82 percent of respondents, thought that politicians put the interest of their parties higher than the interest of the country.

In the aftermath of the devastating Tohoku Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s leadership was tested for its incompetent response, and his approval rating has fallen to 14 percent. While it would be fair for him to step down at this point, he is still holding onto power, showing the essence of self-centered politics.

How about Korean politicians? They engage in meaningless confrontations frequently but are eager to drink even poison if it will bring them more votes. Foreign Policy magazine named parliaments in Japan, Belgium and Taiwan the most incompetent legislatures in the world. But they may have overlooked the gridlock in Korea’s National Assembly.

Every year, the Pew Research Center surveys key countries around the world regarding the satisfaction over the direction of state administration. Not many countries that have adopted Western democracy get high scores. In 2011, only 21 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the direction of the government. A quarter of the Japanese and the French said they were content with their governments. In Britain, it was 32 percent. In the 2010 survey, the satisfaction rate of Korean citizens was 21 percent. Along with Spain, at 15 percent, and the United States, Korea was among the lowest.

In contrast, China received the highest points, with 85 percent of its citizens content with their government’s direction in the 2011 survey. China topped the list in 2009 and 2010, with 87 percent. The Chinese government uses the survey results to advocate the superiority of the Chinese political system. Beijing has attacked Western democracies for demanding political reform and democratization when they themselves are unable to satisfy their own citizens.

There certainly are advantages to the Chinese system based on its one-party rule under the Communist Party. Political elites are promoted by a competitive verification process within the party over an extended period of time, and once a leader is chosen and gets the top position, he is able to display stable leadership for a long time. Due to the nature of the group leadership system that emphasizes consensus, he does not seek dictatorship.

Since he does not have to care about re-election, the leader is able to pursue governance with a long-term perspective. It would be a challenge in a democracy, where people express their opinions through votes. To seize and remain in power, politicians have to dominate the voters’ mind. Politicians produce rosy promises, and excessive competition among political parties often leads to populism and factionalism.

Albert Hirschman, the American economist famous for his theory of unbalanced growth, published a book titled “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” in 1970. In this book, he warned that disappointment over organization and system would eventually lead to withdrawal or complaints. The Tea Party supporters in the United States, who seem to keep their ears closed no matter what happens to the nation, may signal the public’s desire to “exit” from the state system of the United States.

In order for China’s claim to superiority to be convincing, there has to be freedom of press and speech in China. But media control over the recent high speed train accident illustrates what kind of a regime China is. When freedom of expression is guaranteed, the one-party system cannot be maintained in China. It is the dilemma of China’s political system.

Politicians have to share the sense of a crisis. At this rate, not just the politicians but also the system itself may collapse. They need to break away from the extreme factionalism of “all or nothing” and share the spirit of compromise and coexistence. Cooperative competition is what will save democracy from its crisis.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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