[Viewpoint] The mandate of heaven and men

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[Viewpoint] The mandate of heaven and men

Public opinion is the modern equivalent of the Mandate of Heaven, but the pitch-and-roll of public sentiment in the months leading up to the general election has made me wonder if divine will played a role after all. I could not help but worry about the future of the country, and the political democracy of Korea, as the general election was notable for a lack of policy concerns, principles and a sense of responsibility.

But as I reviewed the election outcome more closely, I began to think that public opinion actually worked in conjunction with divine will after all. Neither the ruling nor the opposition party suffered fatal damage, so it is up to the politicians now. As optimism over the development of Korea’s democratic politics gradually fades and political discord and regression have become a routine, the general election has given us an opportunity for national reflection on past mistakes and the new starts needed. It may be just what the divine will intended.

The democratization that Koreans had ardently hoped for was ultimately liberation from dictatorship and prevention of dictatorial rule in the future. While we focused on overthrowing dictators, we lacked a full understanding on how to replace an autocratic system with a democratic one. Koreans have sufficiently learned from experience about dictatorial rule that wraps itself in nationalism and a dictatorship of the proletariat that emphasizes class struggle. However, in our 25 years of democratic politics - which include five presidents and six National Assemblies - we have not thoroughly understood how difficult it is to institutionalize a parliamentary system that actualizes popular sovereignty, especially the establishment of a party system necessary for the operation of parliamentary politics.

In the process of institutionalizing democratic politics, the dull development of parliamentary politics disappointed many citizens. At the same time, a dangerous phenomenon - waiting for the emergence of a powerful leader - became all too common. The National Assembly and political parties lacked dignity and productivity, but as public trust in politics fell, the Blue House gained too much power to handle national affairs.

Thus Korean politics turned into an all-or-nothing race to become the president and monopolize power and authority. While people may denounce the “dictatorship of the Blue House,” the focus of all political activities is actually focussed on seizing presidential authority. Needless to say, the constitutional norms, including the separation of powers, grew weak.

As a result, an anti-democratic habit of ignoring the authority of the National Assembly to concentrate on seizing the Blue House has spread throughout our political realm. It’s about time we correct the unfair and irresponsible practice of treating the general election as a prelude to the presidential election. In order to improve on this, the 19th National Assembly needs to prioritize the task of vitalizing the parliamentary and party system while pursuing thorough reforms.

The most crucial pending issue for Korean politics is to understand how Korean society has become diversified in terms of wealth and social class through democratization, industrialization and globalization, and to create a community that accommodates diversity. The last general election illustrated just how different Korea’s 50 million citizens are, even if they share ethnic homogeneity. As politicians seek democratic means to embrace the differences between the conservative and the progressive, the rich and the poor, management and labor, the capital region and the others, as well as to close generational and regional gaps, they need to pursue the politics of tolerance, negotiation and compromise.

In today’s politics, especially in the National Assembly and amongst political parties, a master of negotiation, not a skilled fighter, is most needed. The outcome of the general election shows that the politicians must not ignore this paramount fact.

We have a long way to go. North Korea constantly reminds us the journey to reunification is a long and rough one. In order to survive that journey, we need internal harmony, willingness to accommodate and the practice of democratic dialogue. The most urgent task is to normalize parliamentary politics so that the representatives of the citizens may discuss national affairs properly. In other words, development of democratic party politics is only possible when the National Assembly establishes itself at the center of our politics.

Primitive discord and violence involving chainsaw and tear gas must not be repeated ever again. Majority rule requires compromise through discussion. The public sentiment and the Mandate of Heaven disclosed in the general election are that politicians should no longer play the blame game, but instead need to abide by the Constitution and focus on national harmony and compromise. Citizens believe that is the route to parliamentary democracy.

*The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo
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