The politics of disunity

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The politics of disunity

The National Assembly has finally returned to business thanks to a hastily and loosely patched up peace pact amid a growing public outcry against legislative neglect. The Assembly missed the deadline for the passage of next year’s budget bill. From the track record so far in its zero-sum political war, we are not entirely convinced that the legislature will get its act together this time. Representative politics must be orchestrated with a sense of balanced restraint. We are doubtful if that basic rule has been understood.

Political distrust has hit a dangerous level in public opinion polls. It’s getting hard to differentiate our politics and plain old warfare. The famous quote by German strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” may be applicable to Korean politicians.

The topics of dispute are numerous, but here are the main ones: controversy over the late President Roh Moo-hyun’s comments on the Northern Limit Line during summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2007; allegations that the National Intelligence Service interfered in last year’s presidential race; the railroading of the confirmation of the appointment of the Board of Audit and Inspection chief through the Assembly; and the opposition’s boycott of budget reviews.

The legislature has been warring over one issue after another throughout the year, throwing out the basic principle of compromise that underpins representative politics. It made a new law aimed at overhauling the way the National Assembly works useless so it can operate on physical clashes instead of compromise. No rules can control our legislature. What’s left is just showdowns and put downs.

Former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik lamented that the entire Assembly should be disbanded and go before the public for a new vote. Freshly returning from Germany after he resigned from office last year, he may have been shocked to find a country held hostage by warring politicians.

There is a saying about German train service - which is one of the world’s best and most efficient - that on German trains, passengers appear to be working along with the attendants. It suggests how Germans get their work done - through collaboration among passengers and attendants, ruling and opposition parties, the government and the people. We often turn to Germany for guidance on politics, the economy and unification. Why are we so inspired by the German experience? Sohn Hak-kyu, a former Democratic Party chairman who studied in Germany, cited the “politics of unity” as Germany’s pride.

We are in urgent need of politics of unity. The word “unity” has become an unknown qualitiy in our Assembly, so dominated by struggle and battles instead of competition and compromise. We can hardly expect the legislature to ever get around to the piles of bills awaiting it, many of which are intended to help the public in their daily lives.

The JoongAng Ilbo recently carried an article reporting that the number of bills the legislature passed in the last three months was zero.

South Korea became a model for both industrialization and democratization, replacing political struggles on the streets with a competitive system at the ballot box and in the legislature. We believed representative politics would work. But what we have seen is a continuation of the zero-sum confrontation mindset: “Any victory for you is a loss to me.” There have been clashes before. Opposition lawmakers attempted to impeach former President Roh. But since then, politicians have tried not to step over the line.

People had high hopes for a female president pledging an age of unity. But promises of smart politics never came through. Opinion polls suggest that the public blames both the ruling and opposition camp. Lawmakers are still pointing fingers and endlessly wrangling about what was said and done during the last presidential campaign.

The antagonism appears to be too serious to be referred to as a passing phenomenon. Extreme actions have become the norm. There is no longer room for the “art of possibilities” through respect for differences and pursuit of compromise in domestic politics.

Is there no exit? The former prime minister suggested all members of the Assembly resign. But changing one set of faces may not solve the problem.

What needs to be changed is the system itself. Confrontations and impasses are frequent in a two-party system that abides by majority rule as seen in the U.S. Congress.

Political textbooks offer guidance. A parliamentary system is better than the presidential system, and a multi-party system is more productive than a two-party system. Again Germany provides a good model. We should study fundamental change.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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

by Chang Dal-joong

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