[Viewpoint] Building faith in politics

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[Viewpoint] Building faith in politics

We now live in an era of political distrust. From the developed democratic states to the underdeveloped autocratic systems, public distrust of politics and power wielders is rising all over the world. In the 21st century, the crisis of democracy is getting worse, and a breakdown of the market economy and financial system has brought a crisis in capitalism. The distrust goes beyond the politicians who are responsible for state administration. Politics itself became a target of denunciation and distrust.

Korea is no exception. Distrust of politics is spreading apace. Since the democratization of 1987, five presidential elections and seven legislative elections have been held under a free and fair system. However, the citizens are sinking deeper into the quagmire of disappointment at the politicians and politics. How can we explain such a widespread sentiment?

First of all, as Koreans experienced the confrontation of systems for over 60 years - which started with an ideological split during the independence movement and through the Korean War - the clash of ideologies became a fixture in the political culture of Korea. There is no room for the productive politics of dialogue and compromise. While the cause of this political failure belongs more to the limits of the system than to individual politicians, people anticipated the emergence of a great leader who could resolve the crisis at once rather than pursuing systematic renovation and a reform of the power structure. This political culture has been a major cause of the deterioration of faith in democracy in Korea.

In fact, waiting for a great leader like Queen Seondeok in the 7th century during the Silla Dynasty or King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty is a fantasy in the age of democratic politics. The most urgent task today is developing political leadership for the new era with a vision to see through international politics and history, high ethics and dignity to prioritize public interest and professional expertise in state administration.

When Italy was on the verge of national bankruptcy six months ago, President Giorgio Napolitano appointed Mario Monti as Prime Minister to overcome the national crisis. Monti is a renowned economist and expert in state administration who always prioritizes the public interest. The Monti government earned wide trust at home and abroad and successfully escaped from the immediate economic crisis. In an opinion survey, 54 percent of Italian citizens were supportive of the Monti government, while political parties got a mere 2 percent support rating. While Korea and Italy are in different situations, Korea can learn from appointment of Prime Minister Monti and his conquering of a national crisis.

Let’s put aside the discussion over whether to maintain a presidential system where authority and accountability are assigned to one individual. If the seven months leading to the December election turns out to be a mudslinging festival that encourages further confrontation and division, the legitimacy and potential of democratic politics in Korea will only dwindle. Just in time, outgoing lawmaker Kang Bong-kyun advised the ruling and opposition parties to engage in a competition of politics in a column in the April 29 issue of the JoongAng Sunday. Kang served the state in the administrative and legislative branches for more than 40 years, and as he is to leave the National Assembly, he requested politicians to have hope and a vision for national development and economic stability and develop policy agenda as parties prepare for the upcoming presidential election.

We cannot make light of his warning that the future of the Korean economy will be even more unstable if the political parties amplify discord among regions, ideologies, generations and classes instead of proposing a specific blueprint to realize expanded welfare, sound finances and economic democracy to ensure unity of the community.

Democratic politics has an innate dilemma. It has to please the people to win support of the citizens to get elected and rule effectively. At the same time, it has to make decisions demanding sacrifices from the people for the security and future of the state and the community. Because there is no easy answer to this dilemma, it is hard to find a leader who can ask citizens to make sacrifices in a democratic state.

However, politicians often commit the folly of underestimating the citizenship and potential of the people. Many elections in democratic states illustrate that a wide and stable middle that values utilitarian wisdom remains solid and undiminished despite ideological polarizations revealed in opinion polls. Moreover, young citizens are far more flexible and creative than the older generation when it comes to designing a healthy society for the future.

In order to heal the ailing politics and keep our economy growing, and to overcome the obstacle of political distrust by voters, politicians need to trust the good sense of the citizens who do not reject immediate sacrifices for their futures. They need to communicate this faith with the voters they hope to woo.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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