Transformative politics needed

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Transformative politics needed

As Abraham Lincoln orated, democracy is supposed to be a political system of the people, by the people and for the people. However, it is doubtful that democracy is indeed politics “for the people,” especially as we live in a world of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. Columbia University Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, says the democracy we witness today is “of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.”

The crisis of faith in democracy is not limited to the eurozone, where excessive debt troubles Greece and Spain. Debt-ridden democracies are realities for Shinzo Abe of Japan and Barack Obama of the United States. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, hardly any country has come up with working solutions to the challenges of unemployment and severe economic slowdown. As a result, dissatisfaction and uncertainty among the citizens grows. The worst side of this in Korea is a growing number of people who are sincerely giving up on three goals in life that have been bedrocks in the past: getting married, having children and becoming a homeowner.

Do we really have no answer to this global crisis? A clue can be found in the textbooks dealing with democracy. Athenian statesman Solon’s reforms laid the foundations for ancient democracy by ending a vicious cycle of debts.

In the early 6th century BC in the city-state of Athens, average people had to offer themselves as security to borrow money from the rich. When they could not pay back, they were enslaved. It was the Athenian version of a society of 99 percent versus the 1 percent.

Solon emerged as a political leader. He wrote off debts of many people and prohibited having a debtor’s person used as security for a loan.

Those who were enslaved were released, and the opportunity to participate in politics was expanded to the poor. While some Athenians were not pleased, they followed Solon’s reforms. Political scientists say Solon’s reforms changed the foundation of politics through the virtues of moderation.

As president-elect, Park Geun-hye advocates a new age of more kindness and gentleness. It requires major reform. There are calls for new polices and appointments. But most of those are reminders not to repeat the mistakes of the predecessor.

But epoch-making reform is demanded today. One period is nearing its end, but a new age has yet to be born. Can Park usher in this historical transition by maintaining and managing existing tasks? No, she can never bring a breakthrough by simply failing to repeat the mistakes of past administrations.

What we desperately need now is a vision for a new age and new order based on “accurate understanding of the period.” Solon’s transformative type of politics can realize the vision. Other tasks like fair appointments come next.

Some say the election of a female president itself signals a new age. So far, Korean women have to work twice as hard and earned half the credit given to men. Park Geun-hye’s victory is still an exception in our society. The key is to make this routine normal in the new age.

Let’s review her economic and welfare promises. Park claims that her 201 economic and social welfare policy promises will open up a new age. They may have helped win votes, but they are far from the essence of transformative reform. Now is the time for sharing of burdens, not sharing of spoils.

If you are skeptical, take a look at Japan. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that he thought money would be in the chest when he took the power and sources of revenue would increase with indirect taxes. But he was wrong.

Of course, the 201 promises are politically inspired pledges. However, the problem is how to turn the sharing of burdens into sharing of spoils. In other words, she needs to propose a model that social welfare is the best investment.

Whether she goes for tax increases or loans, she will be faced with considerable political trouble if she does not keep her welfare promises. The glow of her administration would dim and the vicious cycle of political distrust would return. The public would turn away from the administration and go out to the streets to punish it on a regular basis. Or they may opt for a movement of direct democracy to resolve individual issues and incapacitate our parliamentary politics.

This vicious cycle must be severed somewhere. The power of a majority in the National Assembly is not enough. So everyone is watching closely to see how Park will bring about transformative reform.

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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