[Viewpoint] A paradoxical balanceNo one can deny that Korean politics is full of surprises and contradictions. To foreign eyes, it’s a walking paradox. The April 11 legislative election was expected to bring sweeping change. Instead, it demonstrated a subtle sense of checks and balances at work.
A foreign journalist who covered the election found the outcome a complete surprise. He thought the opposition would enjoy an overwhelming victory thanks to public outrage over the administration and its various misdeeds, but the result was the opposite of what he expected. He was puzzled by the paradoxical balance between the opposition’s “mobilization of anger” and the voters’ ultimate preference for stability.
First of all, he had a hunch that dramatic political change was occurring as both the ruling party and the main opposition parties were headed by women. In Korea’s Confucian culture, politics was always considered a realm reserved for men. Korean women complain that they are blocked by a glass ceiling and suffer political disadvantage. The glass ceiling was an invisible obstacle for women, preventing them from pursuing careers in society. Has the glass ceiling been broken through this election thanks to the three female party leaders? Unfortunately, the gender issue was not highlighted in the campaign at all.
Secondly, the foreign journalist expected the influence of civic groups and social network services would bring drastic changes as they had supplanted the formerly all-powerful political parties. The influence of party outsiders seemed more powerful than the parties themselves for both the ruling and opposition camps.
In fact, outsiders such as the host of the podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep,” received more attention than the political veterans. Naturally, talk of policies and the parties’ platforms were shoved aside. The campaign focused more on moral debates, such as the idea that voters should pass judgment on the Lee Myung-bak administration. In fact, voters were not swayed by the mobilized fury.
The foreign correspondent was also surprised by the neutralization of the ideological debates. He thought voters would be moved by radical ideologies or honey-dripping welfare promises because of Korea’s deepening social polarization. But neither North Korean threats nor welfare promises swayed voters. This may suggest that the public now hopes for politics that deals with concrete issues through discussion and compromise.
In short, the April 11 legislative election serves as a warning to out-of- control political activism. Compared to conventional party politics, run-amok political activism defies discussion and compromise. Its yardstick is the dichotomy between good and evil. When trust in politics evaporates, we can hardly ignore the appeal of such an extreme yardstick. The movements that exploit political distrust, as seen by “Naneun Ggomsuda” supporters, made most of the headlines.
But they didn’t win, and the election result turned out well for party politics. Of course, political progress is not always a linear movement. In the transition period, we may stumble and even fall. The real question is how long this paradoxical balance can be maintained, especially when so-called social movements, exploiting the power of social networking services, are in full swing.
So far, such movements focused on expanding what Jurgen Habermas called the “reasonable space for discussion.” However, the space for discussion during the campaign was hardly a reasonable space, focused as it was on how to exacerbate confrontation and agitation.
What contributed to such a paradoxical balance? It may have been regional sentiment or the generational divide. But the most significant factor was the public’s wariness of arrogance and the rather bold savageness of the political activists.
Party politics is a mirror that reflects public sentiment. The mirror has to be clean and even. A progressive party armed with high morals, in particular, needs a good mirror. If it adheres to mere self-justification and excuses, the mirror that should reflect public sentiment gets more and more warped.
With the presidential election approaching, the legislative election’s outcome casts a clear message. No matter how much you hate each other, politicians should stand face-to-face and have discussions and work toward compromises. Only then can the warped mirrors be fixed. In fact, there is a vast middle ground between good and evil. If politicians ignore it and stick to a yardstick that denies the middle ground, the presidential hopefuls will have a high price to pay.
The public’s distrust of politics is at a recent high. So it is questionable how the public will think of politics of compromise. If things go wrong, however, the current balance may face a drastic change in the presidential election.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily
* The author is a political science professor at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong