[Viewpoint] Open primaries and power of Internet

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[Viewpoint] Open primaries and power of Internet

The liberal camp is set to hold a primary on Monday to nominate a single candidate to run in the Seoul mayoral by-election on Oct. 26. The open primary at Jangchung Stadium in central Seoul will be like no other.

The stadium will open at 7 a.m., but voters will walk into an empty venue. Candidates and the usual clamor and banners will be absent. The voters, who were randomly selected out of those who applied to be an elector, can stop by any time on that day to cast their ballot.

Yet they will have to make a crucial decision in choosing between Democratic Party candidate Representative Park Young-sun and lawyer-turned-activist Park Won-soon without hearing their final pitch. With no presentations, the primary will be uneventful and the voters will have to choose their star player without holding auditions.

The rigidity of election laws is behind the absurdity. The upcoming primary is open, in which any registered elector regardless of party affiliation can take part.

The Democratic Party tested this type of primary to select its presidential nominee in 2002. Before, primaries were closed - restricted to party members. The open primary was introduced to draw average citizens into the political primary process and reflect consensus and support for the candidate.

The open primary soon became popular after the 2002 experiment. Candidates deliver their last pitches to impress and woo voters. The electors then cast their ballots, possibly changing their mind depending on how impressive the candidates were.

But candidates are deprived of their final moment on stage at the upcoming primary because Park is not affiliated with a party. Since Park is an independent candidate, the primary cannot be deemed as a Democratic Party primary. Under current election laws, any campaigning activities, including addresses made by candidates, on election day is prohibited.

It is a ludicrous yet too grave a matter to simply laugh at. The upcoming primary could be opening a new chapter in our political history. An independent candidate with no party affiliation taking part in a primary for a major election is unprecedented and meaningful. Up to now, to run for office, one had to join a political party. Politics was possible through a party alone. But this could all change. Anyone could take on the established political system and become mainstream.

Party-less politics became possible because of the advances and proliferation of social networking services that have enhanced mobility and access to average citizens. Park, who registered just 5 percent in the polls after he announced his candidacy for the Seoul mayoralty, saw his ratings soar to near 50 percent.

He became a star overnight after his name and face were publicized in a press conference by software pioneer and popular professor Ahn Cheol-soo, who declined to run for Seoul mayor despite widespread calls to do so.

With support from Ahn, who enjoys celebrity status in cyberspace especially among the nation’s young voters, Park raised 3.8 billion won ($3.2 million) in campaign funds via the Internet in just two days. His pleas for donations were spread through various online community platforms that organized and extended his support network offline.

The Jangchung primary on Monday could demonstrate the power of online networking. Parties usually mobilize their supporters to turn an open primary into success. The results of the primary will largely depend on which of two candidates is able draw more supporters to the voting booth. The Democratic Party, with its one million registered members, has the natural edge. But despite such a handicap, Park agreed to the primary invitation because of his confidence in his online support base and the power of instant messaging to encourage voters to turn out.

Park has valiantly thrown down the gauntlet against analog politics by raising a digital army. We may have to await the results, but so far, mainstream politics appears to be shaking with fear of a fearless digital civilian force. The Jangchung match, even without the campaigning, could turn out to be amusing after all.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Byung-sang
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