Hello bread! Hello circus!

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Hello bread! Hello circus!

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From the voters’ point of view, the upcoming presidential election is panning out as one big yawn. Compared to previous elections, this one has relatively few controversies or moments of excitement. The presidential election is supposed to be a contest among the candidates’ outlooks on the world.

Each candidate should outline his or her values and ideas to be judged by the voters. But this time around, all we get are fantasy promises from Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, and their fantasies are pretty much the same. There is no way of knowing how they might go about fulfilling their pie-in-the-sky promises. Moreover, we can’t really see how these promises fit into any bigger picture of our society and its future.

Voters can’t help but worry about these three. With the big picture of a future vision of national integration pushed aside, the presidential election is likely to be a mere beauty contest on which candidate has the most attractive set of promises.

Reporters were in agony at a recent policy forum attended by top aides of the three candidates. There was so very little to write about. The three camps are basically promising the same set of soap bubble fantasies.

People want a candidate who can protect the nation from jeopardy and lead it into a future with new ideas. Considering the problems Korea is faced with, both economically and geopolitically, it’s a case for wonder that our presidential candidates seem so small.

For any society to function properly, it needs values and norms representing the spirit of the time, an elite group that can lead the society, and a leader of that group. In traditional society, Confucianism was the zeitgeist, the yangban class was the ruling elite and the patriarchy represented the ideal human leader. But we’ve come a long way from our traditional society. Unfortunately, the modern society that followed it is in a constant state of flux or evolution. The spirit of development ideology, the modern elites and the ideal model of professionalism is not enough to base a society on, especially in the fast-changing information society.

The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon reflects the changes in our time. He got a huge following just by promising newness in politics. However, people are starting to feel his promise of change may be superficial. They are equally dubious about the other candidates. Park Geun-hye’s promise of an “age for people’s happiness” and Moon Jae-in’s “change of regime, period and politics” seem to present new ideologies, but not when you scratch their very thick surfaces.

Korean politics appears to be at a juncture, but what comes next? A big bang? Or nothing? The behavior of independent voters could be significant. While the opposition is laboring to unite ahead of the polls, we cannot predict how the independents will move. It would be meaningful if they could propel a clear change in the existing political structure, whether the opposition gets their support or it goes to a third force. Then, the presidential election would become a clear choice between policy ideas.

However, if the independent voters don’t find a new way and simply dissipate, Korean politics will suffer. The independent voters have different values on different issues. For example, they may be progressive on social issues such as welfare but be conservative when it comes to North Korean policy. They’re not stuck in the straightjacket of past Korean ideologies. If they end up following fantasy promises, Korea’s politics could become that of “bread and circus,” which brought the fall of the Roman Empire.

The historical lesson of bread and circuses is a solemn one that’s relevant to all political societies. When long wars devastated Rome’s economy, politicians decided to distribute bread for free and provide circus for entertainment in order to win the support of citizens. The populism of bread and circuses led to decadence and the collapse of the empire.

We need to keep that in mind as we gaze at hundreds of rosy promises. It’s always wiser not to believe in promises that are too good to be true.

We know what the three candidates want from us. They want the voters to decide if they are “anti-Saenuri Party” or “anti-unified opposition.” But at this point, we really don’t know where or how any of them would lead us. We want to hear each candidate say how he or she would lead the nation. If they fail to answer these questions, the presidential election will be a joke.

The joke is on us. We haven’t seen a debate in this election, and even interviews with the candidates are rare.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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