Hoping against extremes

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Hoping against extremes

I buried my political preferences for the last couple of months and let down my guard to make myself utterly susceptible to the slightest charm or inspiration coming from the two presidential candidates, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and her rival Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party. I hoped that my invisible signs of longing would somehow reach them and be repaid with something substantial.

Sadly, my waiting had been in vain. My emotions may have been completely drained after having gone through brief flings of hope, followed by long periods of disappointment and frustration every five years for the last 25 years since we first headed to the polls to choose a president with our own voters’ hands. Another election will be over today. Whatever hope there is left in me may again be crushed five years from now. But still, I dream I will find myself more optimistic around this same time in the year 2017.

The winner of today’s election will soon be thanking the people and uttering a message of hope. His or her words will be long forgotten by the time another election season comes around five years on. Will the people then still believe that a new government will do any better than the last? Will the outgoing president again be persecuted? Will Korea Inc., hurt by a long and weary fight against it, slowly be moving closer to its doom?

No governments over the last 25 years under our democratic system have been safe from such dangers. If Koreans were allowed to follow their passions and live up to their potential while the government and politicians did their jobs of trying to even out wealth and opportunities, the ordinary citizen would have earned more than $30,000 (on a per capita basis) a long time ago. But politicians are dragging the country and its underlying potential down, competing to build a stronger social safety net and come up with hare-brained ideas of economic justice.

Politicians are the biggest stumbling block to the country’s march forward with their backwardness, snobbishness and self-righteousness, yet they hardly ever learn and go on justifying themselves with a self-denial and blame game. While civilian society is ever evolving with the changing times, politicians are like an indigenous species on the Galapagos Islands, unaffected and out of touch with the rest of society and the world beyond.

What I dread five years from now is a replay of vengeance, solo acts and people going to extremes. I fear that Moon Jae-in will remove his next-door-neighborhood mask and release the ghosts from the closet of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, touching off the radical experiments in social justice. I tremble at the thought of reactivated tax threats and reckless attacks on any team that happens to be at the top of its game, whether they are individuals, companies, universities or media organizations.

No act, even in the name of justice, can be noble when carried out ruthlessly. I do not want to be tempted again with sweet lies. Liberal politicking should evolve to sensible engagement, not to serve as payback or a witch hunt as before.

A female glow to politics can be equally misleading. A group of power-hungry and ill-treated conservatives could be hiding behind their “mother figure,” Park, counting down to the day when their time arrives. I fear greed and rashness could blind them as they try to impress their mother and reward themselves for the hard years living as half-brothers and sisters in the unheated corner of a wealthy house of the ruling power.

I dread that the grass roots, longing for progressive changes and reform, could be ignored by the no-nonsense and no-compromise queen who reigns from on high. I also worry that campaign promises and sensible advice on social unity will somehow get lost down the road.

Both Moon and Park can drift to the extreme left or right. We are too familiar with the politics of extremes. If we do not want to get caught up again in that, the incoming government would have to promise to itself and to the people the politics of engagement and partisan-free government.

It would be a new experiment that could change the course of Korean politics. It won’t be easy due to the legacy of political inbreeding, relatively short terms and the risk of undermining the concentrating force of ruling power.

Moon promised to form a grand coalition government together with all liberal and civilian forces that helped his campaign. He probably won’t have any room for Saenuri Party members. As the ruling party leader in the past, Park Geun-hye mediated to seat opposition legislators in the cabinet. But incorporating liberal forces in welfare, labor and women’s affairs would be better for governance and social unity.

The dice have been thrown and judgement day has arrived. I tried to contain my hopes this time and cast my ballot for the candidate who is less extreme. I hope that person turns out to be less disappointing, doesn’t wreck public finances, protects the local economy and our people from external challenges and risks, and stands firm against North Korea.

One more thing. Once elected, the people and society should appreciate and congratulate the winner. Unlike politicians, we voters should at least demonstrate maturity and open-mindedness.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun

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