[Viewpoint] A Twitter triumphA fortnight ago, I received an e-mail encouraging me to apply to become an elector in the primary of the liberal camp to select a single candidate to run in the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election.
It was from acquaintances from university days. They urged me to vote for independent candidate Park Won-soon, a human rights lawyer-turned-civic activist. They explained the procedure to get a place as a voter.
Similar e-mails thudded into my inbox and instant messages pinged on my phone. Tweets flooded in the day before the primary. On Election Day itself, tweets promised me gifts if I uploaded a photo of my ballot.
The scene at the primary venue was broadcast live through instant messaging services. A celebrity arrived at the venue and offered autographs. Never in my entire career covering politics as a journalist have I seen a political event marketed so aggressively.
At the end of the day, Park, a political novice without any party affiliation, beat contenders from the main opposition Democratic Party and the splinter Democratic Labor Party. It was the first time a nonpolitician won the backing of the entire opposition coalition in such a major election.
The DP disgraced itself when its candidate failed to win a place in one of the country’s most important political races. Park Young-sun, of the Democratic Party, lagged in polls, but many bet on her winning because the party mobilized its faithful to register for the primary. But the party has a 2G mentality that was no match for the 4G gang supporting Park Won-soon, with its digital mass collaboration and online social networking.
Some political pundits say public disgust with mainstream politics and a growing number of independent voters account for Park’s victory. It is no news that ordinary citizens are frustrated and dissatisfied with mainstream political parties, both ruling and opposition.
But statistics show not many have actually abandoned their party preferences. According to a Gallup Korea study, since 1987 the number of people who claim no party preference has actually declined. Independents accounted for about 40 percent of total eligible voters from 1990 to 2004 and then went down to around 20 percent. The number edged up to near 30 percent last year.
The real force behind the phenomenon was digital networking. Internet-fueled people power put progressive candidate Roh Moo-hyun in the presidency in 2002. Voting booths visited by elderly citizens in the morning were filled with the younger generation in the afternoon. Exit poll results were different in the morning and afternoon. Younger voters, encouraged by instant messaging and e-mails, rushed to cast their votes.
Today’s voters will be mobilized faster through easily accessible, viral mass media and messaging tools.
The social-networking-using polity has become a formidable and forceful power. Its direct reach to voters can compensate for some of the loopholes and limits of representative democracy. But at this stage of the evolution of technology, social networking is led by a small powerful minority. And instead of being used as a neutral venue for public debate, the online community can be used and abused by shrewd campaign strategists.
The ascent of a civilian nonpolitician candidate is a warning of sweeping changes in the next general elections.
It is still too early to predict a total collapse of the mainstream political parties. They still have a chance to reinvent themselves. The parties must undergo rigorous structural makeovers since they have lost public credibility, and they must keep an eye out for impressive new faces. They also must rev up their connections with the public through social networking platforms.
The DP inevitably lost face when Park resisted joining the party. Park believes he has a better chance running as an independent candidate. The party, having lost the primary, can no longer count on the premium of its name. But a political party is different from a civilian organization.
Without a party base and support, governance could be risky and an unpleasantly uphill battle. Park, if he becomes the mayor, vowed to rollback work on the four-rivers restoration project and halt the work on the Yanghwa Bridge over the Han River.
A political party develops policies and works to ensure their viability. It also must take the blame for failures. But such accountability cannot be demanded from civilian organizations or social networking leaders.
Park has yet to formulate a platform. It is, in fact, comical for the mainstream political parties to forge an election coalition with an independent candidate who has no campaign platform. The DP, as it must now back Park, must work with him on campaign policies. It is everyone’s duty to faithfully consider the demands of the social networking populace and civilian community in mainstream politics.
*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook