[Viewpoint] Nominations for failure

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[Viewpoint] Nominations for failure

The public is pretty disappointed with the nominees for the April 11 general election. Both the ruling party’s and opposition parties’ nomination processes were marred with scandals and controversies. They were noisier and more disappointing than the nomination processes of the past.

Why do politics always disappoint us? It’s probably not the fault of each individual politician. When you meet lawmakers personally, they always speak passionately about democracy, the rule of law, dialogue and the need for compromise. They seemed to have clear logic and strong convictions as individuals. They all acknowledge the problems of politics. But such levelheaded people often act in surprising ways when they step into the political arena.

Why is that? In the end, the problem is the political system, not the politicians. Hoping for the triumph of individual politicians’ consciences and ethics is like waiting for Godot. The key problem in the political mechanism that incapacitates good sense is the nomination process. All the problems of Korean politics are seen clearly during the process. And the most fundamental resolution for the flaws in our politics will be correcting the nomination mechanism.

There were countless problems seen in the latest round, but let’s go back to the fundamentals. Political scientists call the current political system the “1987 system.” The framework that was created after our democratization in 1987 has been maintained until today. The largest problem of the system is the top-down nomination process. The supreme leader of a party chooses candidates. Although the country was democratized and the dictatorship ended, the key challenge of democracy after democratization - democratization of political parties - has not been achieved.

In the days of presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, the top-down system worked. The New Korea Party’s nominations for the 1996 general election are often seen as the most successful so far. At the time, President Kim Young-sam, who was also the chairman of the party, controlled the entire process. That was possible because the Blue House, the Agency for National Security Planning and the secret campaign camp of Kim’s son Kim Hyun-chul dominated the political resources of the country.

There was an almost infinite amount of money available to the spy agency, and it was able to collect information to verify candidates. It didn’t hesitate to use force to remove people who protested the nomination process. Exhaustive public opinion polls were taken in all constituencies, and the best candidates were selected and then sent to the districts with enough money and organizational power to win victories. After such a process, the elected lawmakers inevitably became faithful to the boss. The top-down system was authoritarian, but effective.

But the era of such dominating power and unlimited resources ended when democratization settled into our society. But the nomination mechanism - the key to the political system - is unchanged. Although the leaderships of the political parties recruited outside experts and created nomination committees to dodge criticism, they were cosmetic changes. They were desperate attempts to give the parties face-lifts without any blood actually being spilt.

Leaders who don’t have anything like the power of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung are still insisting on the top-down system, and undesirable side effects were obvious. Because there was no clear standard for the nominees, resistance grew in the ranks of the hopeful. Because the leaders have no great power, many politicians will flee their parties. The nomination process ended up lacking an overall strategy and was dominated by tugs-of-war between factions. Because the leaders lacked the capability to properly screen candidates, they nominated some clunkers and were forced to withdrew them. Because they wanted to keep their loyalists, politicians with no ties to constituencies were nominated. There was no democracy or efficiency.

The fundamental cure is changing the system from top-down to bottom-up. Politics must be democratic before it can be effective. The primaries that took place in some constituencies were the bottom-up system. Unfortunately, they failed this time. The principle was right, but the reality failed to support the change. For years, parties have promised to adopt the bottom-up nomination process. And yet, lawmakers on the Special Committee on Political Reform failed to amend the law in time.

To really change our system, the law should be revised and the National Election Commission must take charge. Without necessary preparations, the parties just tried to pretend that their nomination processes were changed to the bottom-up system.

There is no hope left this time. The only thing left now is for the voters to cast their ballots for the best candidates. Because they can still vote for the second-worst candidate, elections are meaningful.

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

by Oh Byung-sang
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