[Viewpoint] Restoring the democratic process

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[Viewpoint] Restoring the democratic process

On the morning of Liberation Day yesterday, the first line of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s “Spring Gaze” came to mind. It says: “The country has fallen, yet mountains and rivers remain the same.” It may be the unsettling state of affairs these days that raises concerns about the country’s future.

Thoughts return to the dark and humiliating 36 years of lost national sovereignty under Japanese colonial rule. What agony our ancestors must have gone through as they gave their lives to fight for independence and retrieve their land when the country fell to the hands of imperial Japan.

Let us take a moment to relive the circumstances: the citizens’ desperate cries for freedom on the bloody March 1, 1919; the exhilarating liberation declaration on Aug. 15, 1945, after decades of hopelessness; the proclamation of the Republic of Korea; the forced bisection of the continent in 1948; and the sacrifice of enduring the 1950-53 war to protect our sovereignty and democracy.

It was disheartening to embrace Liberation Day morning with confidence in the shaken legislative, judiciary, administration, central and local governance bodies that we fought so hard to defend.

Public confidence has been crumbling around the world since a couple of years ago, and South Korea has not been an exception. We should contemplate why so many countries - particularly those upholding democracy - are slipping into the abyss of insecurity.

The United States and other advanced countries are blaming the capital market crisis and economic slowdown since 2008 on greedy profligacy and reckless management by too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Some also believe that market globalization has gone beyond its heyday.

But as a number of European countries teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and the U.S. suffers a downgrade in its sovereign credit rating, many are wondering if the fundamental problem lies with politics and the state - rather than simply with the economy.

A government may spend beyond its means to meet the needs and desires of the people, and political expediency and shortsightedness encourage legislatures to engage in budget spending instead of warning of dire consequences and costs. To find fault within the democratic process would be questioning the legitimacy and efficiency of the politics of democracy.

The U.S. further underscored the limits of a democratic political system when it was caught up in partisan wrangling over addressing its snowballing national debt and addressing economic crises.

Neither can the European Union ensure democratic agreement or political compromise over reducing public subsidies or limiting sovereignty rights of individual EU members to battle its excruciating financial problems.

The advanced democratic societies in the U.S. and Europe are realizing that they must re-examine and reform their political processes, systems and culture to overcome today’s dangers. We have gained confidence in our nation by weathering historical challenges of the cold war and also accomplishing industrialization and democratization in a short period of time.

But without bridging widening clefts in various corners of our society, we, too, may be heading for irrevocable doom. We must restore confidence in ourselves that we are more than capable of overcoming any challenges we face by uniting our forces in a concerted manner.

A society tends to break apart when faced with daunting challenges. We must reinforce solidarity and restore the power of the democratic process.

Hungarians revive the spirit of their 1956 revolution and the Czechs the Prague Spring of 1968 to muster up the force and wisdom to resolve problems through democratic means. In Korea, we cherish the legacy of the democratic April 19 Revolution a half-century ago to refuel pride.

We have already built a consensus that the public interest should come before individuals’ in a democratic nation. We must appreciate public authority for the sake of progress.

There are those in our society who seek out the disadvantaged and the suffering in order to lend a hand. They place the public good ahead of their own to make the society a better place. This gives us hope that our society will overcome no matter the difficulties.

*The writer is former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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