[Viewpoint] Out with the old, in with the new
The pace of life in Korea is often faster than in other advanced countries. It is not just the economy that has advanced at an accelerated rate, but social and political changes also tend to occur at a dizzying pace. This has the effect of widening the generation gap, so that grandparents live in an early-modern, parents in a late-modern and their siblings in an ultra-modern age. As a result, voting choices differ according to generation.
Additionally, young people have become more politicized and outspoken recently. Armed with mobile and Internet connectivity, they are easily influenced and organized. Politicians with a knack for sniffing out votes have capitalized on the burgeoning political energy of young people by harnessing their votes online and even via smartphones. The votes from the young have become the key to power. Political parties are racing to win their votes with promises of jobs, lower academic tuition costs and cheaper housing.
But in the existing political structure, young people play only a minor role and party leadership is dominated by the elderly. Grand National Party executives Ahn Sang-soo and Hong Joon-pyo headed the ruling party at the ages of 64 and 57, respectively. Han Myeong-sook, who heads the opposition Democratic United Party, is 68, while other senior figures within the DUP range from 48 to 70. The National Assembly is filled with elderly figures who have retired from the government, legal and other professional fields.
There are few jobs for young people among Korea’s political parties, which has led to a situation of politics of the middle-aged and elderly, by the middle-aged and elderly, for the young. There is no incubating system to breed young talent as political leaders. Parties must scout and train politicians from an early age.
Despite differences in the two countries’ political and social environments, we can learn from the British training system for young politicians.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the ruling Conservative party represents a new era of younger politicians. During the 2010 elections, he brought down the Labour party after it had enjoyed 13 years in power to become the new resident at 10 Downing Street at the age of 43. He headed the opposition camp at 39 and ran the Conservative party for four years and six months. The Tories revamped their stuffy and out-of-touch image by giving opportunities to promising young talents and breathing a youthful new air into the party. The people rewarded their gambit by giving them a chance to govern the country.
Ironically, Britain’s Labour party rose to prominence in 1997 through much the same way, stripping the conservatives of power after 18 years - from the rule of Margaret Thatcher to John Major - and installing 44-year-old Tony Blair as the head of state. After leading the party for three years from 1994, Blair steered it away from its strong left-wing position to pursue a middle way. He revamped the party as “New Labour” in policies and appointments to win broad public support.
Both leaders started their careers at political parties. After graduating from college, Cameron joined the Conservative party’s research department at 22 and was elected as a member of the parliament at 35. While serving as education and labour minister in the party’s shadow cabinet, he demonstrated public appeal and enough political skill to win the party leadership.
Blair’s political career is similar. He joined the party at 22 and was elected to parliament seven years later. From the age of 35, he served as shadow secretary for energy, employment, and home before gaining the party leadership at the age of 41. His policy-making vision and political leadership proved the foundation for his rapid rise and gave him enough authority to build a “democratic socialist party” rather than a “social democratic party.”
In other words, harnessing talented young politicians can change a country’s politics and its future. Korea must also see to nurture young politicians and the April parliamentary elections would be a good start.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chae In-taek