A period of grace

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A period of grace

It’s too early to define the political and historical significance of the 18th presidential election a month ago. However, the election was held amid a kind of desperation that we cannot let the Republic of Korea go like this. The outcome has given us a kind of relief that we have a five-year grace period to prepare for a major change of direction. The only real concern is how we should utilize this valuable opportunity to set the direction and strategy for the country and its next generation and establish the foundation for a new political system and culture.

Although we have successfully accomplished industrialization and democratization in the last half century, Koreans are suffering from a serious economic slump in the 21st century. That reinforces a sense of insecurity, dissatisfaction and distrust that have as much a place in Korean hearts as pride.

In the run-up to the Dec. 19 election, social and economic polarization approached a dangerous level. While the politicians should have taken the initiative to ameliorate the issue, they were instead swept up in the extreme confrontations and divisions, and as a result, the people’s sense that our politics were not operating properly was widespread.

How to integrate the market economy, which made industrialization possible, and the democratization engine, which achieved popular political participation, into an overall system? And what should the role of the government be? These are serious challenges that not just Korea but most democratic systems are facing today.

Developed democratic countries - including the United States and Southern European countries such as Spain and Greece, which accomplished democratization in the 70s - and emerging democratic nations including Brazil and India are all suffering social discord and political chaos as they search for solutions to this omnipresent dilemma. Even China, where the market economy and a one-party dictatorial system coexist, is falling into the political and economic conundrum that rapid growth cannot guarantee a fair society for the public.

In Korea, which held its 18th presidential election in the middle of this global trend, a national consensus transcending the differences between the ruling and opposition parties was reached to give the top priority in national policy to resolving economic and social polarization through a three-fold solution: Improvement of international competitiveness through technological advancement; fair competition and coexistence between economic entities; and an epoch-making reinforcement of the social welfare system. The concentration of will to turn the wishes of the citizens into an opportunity to realize a productive new politics of cooperation and compromise served as a democratic dynamic in the presidential election.

In retrospect, the outcome of an election held in such circumstances reflected the judgment of Korean voters, who have become far more mature in terms of democratic politics despite a neck-and-neck race between the ruling and opposition candidates. Therefore, it is more appropriate for us to judge that the ruling party won an election that it could win, rather than the opposition lost an election that it could not lose.

The opposition candidate was obsessed with the idea of regime change while the ruling party candidate actively accommodated the common-sense judgment that politics of compromise and coexistence beyond extreme confrontation are needed in order to put the right priority forward for the administration and prevent polarization in a sluggish economy. A strange phenomenon occurred: The conservative pursued an epoch-making conversion of Korean politics while the progressive adhered to a traditional political pattern.

As a result, the impression that the ruling party candidate, who consistently advocated economic democratization, people’s livelihood and national integration was riding with the flow of the times more than the opposition candidate who put his maximum effort on regime change, only deepened.

Moon Jae-in’s determination to win the election through a unified opposition campaign, using the liberal forces’ democratic fervor to confront Park Geun-hye’s resolution to return the accomplishments of the past era to the people and embrace the pain and wounds of the period by herself, undoubtedly revealed his limitations in understanding how times have changed. For example, Moon seems to have neglected the basic fact that voters in their 50s, who play a key role among the ruling party’s supporters, are accustomed to democratization awareness as they went to high school and college during the Yusin period of heightened oppression and oppressive military rule.

Simply put, it was unnecessary for Moon to stress democratization to that group, pushing it in their faces. They know the vices of authoritarian politics far better than the younger generations in their 20s and 30s. And they were in a position to calmly choose which leadership was really needed for stable reforms and development of the economy and our society.

As a result of the presidential election, our society has secured a five-year grace period to choose a new direction for national development. Citizens are watching with anticipation and some concern to see how the new administration led by president-elect Park Geun-hye will succeed in realizing economic democratization to ease polarization considerably as well as the kind of responsible politics needed with real cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties.

Now, Korean politics should be a competition to take the midfield - or the middle class. Without the support of people in the middle - which include small- and mid-sized businesses and ideological moderates - the national integration the new era demands cannot be achieved. In the five years of our precious grace period, citizens and politicians alike must participate in this historical experiment with resolute yet generous minds and put forces together to build a truly democratic community where its members prosper together way beyond industrialization and democratization.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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