[Viewpoint] What’s at stake in Seoul

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[Viewpoint] What’s at stake in Seoul

Anxiety mounts as the Seoul mayoral by-election nears. It is not just a matter of who wins or loses. There’s more at stake. With the backdrop of civilian protests against inequity and economic hardship going on around the world in the ‘Occupy’ movement, this by-election could fan conflict in our society rather than bring us together.

The mainstream politicians - both ruling and opposition - now realize they have to make some fundamental changes in the way they behave and relate to voters to prevent a crippling of our representative democracy. But few know what to do or when they will achieve that kind of makeover. The Seoul mayoral by-election is a prelude to the main political contests in our democracy, a general election in April and a presidential election next December, and the chances of our social divide being widened and politics taking a turn for the worse are perilously high.

Elections naturally force people to take sides. Politics is war without the bloodshed. But elections are necessary to choose representatives to serve and work for the country under the principles of democracy. If the ultimate purpose and goal of the elections are the same, both sides need not hang on the results as if they are a matter of life and death.

If fair play is maintained, justice ensured and election rules followed, no outcome is likely to shake the society. But we are dubious that both of the political teams are aiming for the same goals and playing by the same rules.

The Seoul mayoral by-election has demonstrated a serious problem in Korea’s representative democracy. Koreans have shed blood for their democratic politics. From the turning point in 1987 when the first direct presidential election took place, our society has chosen representative politics to prevent power being hijacked by one ideology or one ruthless leader.

But the politics of two decades have disappointed and frustrated the people. The unique Korean political system, in which power is largely centered with the president, is partly the cause. But legislators have done little to impress the people with the way they represent the public.

Historically, politics were dominated by regional and factional struggles. But today’s Koreans, especially the young generation who grew up in a globalized and democratized society, are hardly likely to go by old-school ways. The ideological contest - the right versus the left using North Korea as the fulcrum of their differences - no longer sells. Both the ruling and opposition camps are under pressure to redefine their identities.

They should benchmark how the British Labour Party safely placed itself at an axis of the two-party system with the support of unions and how Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party ruled over five decades through its strongholds in rural regions.

It is hard to pinpoint one or two primary political factors in a society that is now mature, globalized, tech-savvy and diverse in terms of age, gender, geography, wealth and religion. Political parties must contemplate their representativeness in an entirely new perspective.

What parties want to achieve is important. There should be no disagreement between ruling and opposition parties that they must work to reduce the wealth gap and upgrade our welfare system. But their approaches will obviously differ on how to achieve their goals without harming the national budget, trade balance and economic growth.

They should be aware that voters are looking closely for responsible policies and real commitment to fulfill election promises. They must heed the warning from the people and try to reform party structures to meet public demands, regardless of the election outcome. We hope 2012, marking the 25th anniversary of genuine democracy in our country, will usher in an age of mature representative politics.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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