[Viewpoint] Korean politics at a crossroads

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[Viewpoint] Korean politics at a crossroads

The German philosopher Georg Hegel said that for any political party, you can only see its true nature when it is divided. That may sound like a paradox, but Hegel had profound insight. In the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, no political movement can avoid a process of conflict and discord in the course of development. A political party that becomes active through conflict and discord may come back to life or collapse. Political parties in Korea are at the crossroads.

The ruling Grand National Party and the opposition Democratic Party, which were on the verge of collapse after internal struggles and the sudden emergence of Ahn Cheol-soo, are busy reinventing themselves. The DP seemed to be unable to endorse a viable candidate for the Seoul mayoral by-election, and the GNP was looking for a candidate from outside the party. After various complications, both parties successfully named candidates.

But the existing parties’ struggles to find their true colors will climax in the election, when they take on independents and candidates from smaller parties. The key point to watch is whether the parties can defend their values and raison d’etre.

Park Won-soon, a liberal civic activist and lawyer, said he would accept the primary election method proposed by the Democratic Party, whatever it may be. However, he has never announced that he would join the Democratic Party. If Park is chosen as the candidate representing the opposition camp, the Democratic Party may serve as a launching pad for a third power with no party affiliation.

The ruling party is lucky to have come up with a single candidate. Lee Seog-yeon, a lawyer with conservative backing, gave up his bid halfway through. However, that does not mean that the GNP has done a good job. Three and half years into the administration, the ruling party is engaged more in internal strife than in policy discussions. The voters are not looking at the party with friendly eyes. At this rate, it is likely to be crushed once again at the next general election.

The emergence of independent politicians threatens established party politics. More than 50 percent of the voters say they do not support any party. The existing parties have failed to address social challenges such as unemployment, price instability and social polarization.

Voters not only reject the leftist policies that have been dominant in the Democratic Party for the last 10 years, but also the rightist policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration in the last three and half years. Their search for an alternative answer was translated into the unprecedented popularity of independents such as Ahn, Park and Lee Seog-yeon. The calls for a “third way” that transcend the left and the right represents the desire for national change.

In the race for Seoul mayor, the independents have never been so dominant. Therefore, some diagnose the situation as a failure of political parties. If an independent candidate wins the mayoral race next month, and if independents are influential in the presidential and legislative elections next year, political parties may indeed lose their place in Korean politics.

We have reason to be disappointed by the government and the parties. They are widely considered the most corrupt and incompetent organizations around. Therefore, unless the GNP and the DP show some dramatic changes, voters will drift away and instead seek people with different backgrounds, such as civic leaders, intellectuals or celebrities. The era of politics without political parties may yet come.

This is the political reality Korea is faced with, and there are risks if that happens. If political parties fail, there is a possibility that representative politics with accountability may disappear. What guarantees accountability is party politics. The most desirable solution is that third powers form new parties, though no such movement has been detected yet.

The problem is that, without parties, there would be no entity to take responsibility for national or municipal administration or to check or criticize incumbents. Problems could only be resolved through a charismatic leader’s authority or a national referendum.

For a country to become prosperous and grow, political leaders must set the direction and mediate interests. These tasks are only possible through the active operations of political parties. So, the struggles of the GNP and the DP are not a good sign.

The Seoul mayoral by-election on Oct. 26 will determine whether the parties can achieve true reform, given their intense current divisions, or whether they will remain in their old skin and decline. Korean politics is at the crossroads of having other powers replace the GNP and the DP.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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