Electoral alliance conundrumHow political parties form coalitions at election time is a time-honored controversy in Korea. The issue has once again resurfaced itself as one of the biggest variables in the upcoming local elections. An election coalition can completely change the structure of a campaign, and a war of words has already begun. We may want to use this opportunity to clarify the general guidelines for agreeing to endorse candidates in races.
The origin of coalitions can be traced to after Korea’s democratization in 1987. In 1990, Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil agreed to form a single party, shocking the citizens with a seemingly arbitrary - or utterly opportunistic - amalgamation. In 1988, the voters turned the ruling party into a minority group challenged by three opposition political parties. The parties changed that structure entirely on their own. The merger left the progressive faction and the Honam region isolated, and the country became even more divided. Moreover, the merger bruised the spirit of Korean democracy and idealism.
It came back on the conservatives like a boomerang. Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun used the same coalition strategy in 1997 and 2002. They both came over to the conservatives. The strategy was successful, and the progressives had ruling power for 10 years. Back then, the process of getting behind a single candidate was an official procedure, as long as there was a justification. They advocated for a coalition of conservatives and innovators, and promoted the parliamentary system. The outcome betrayed the justification, but at least they went through the proper channels.
However, candidate consolidations since the 2010 local elections have been different. They lacked any kind of justification, the process was shady and the outcomes were destructive. A radical party that used to be in the wilderness shook politics through consolidation deals. The Democratic Party gained a lot from joining with their radical friends.
Is the practice of getting behind a single candidate justified? Because of the original sin of the three-party merger in the 1980s, and because Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun made coalitions, is that enough to say candidate consolidation is justified?
Let’s look at the principles. Candidate consolidation is an expediency and an ideological distortion. The practice can barely be found in developed countries or in political science textbooks. Countries with a parliamentary system have coalition governments, but that only happens when political parties nominate their own candidate for an election and no party has the majority. It is fundamentally different from the Korean practice of not fielding any candidate in a race.
Election coalitions also bring negative side effects. The most notable case was when the Democratic Party joined with the Unified Progressive Party in 2012. The UPP demands the withdrawal of American forces from Korea and the dissolution of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Core leaders of the party were indicted last year on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. The DP leadership wants to project an image that the party values national security. It mentions revising the Sunshine Policy. However, it will have a hard time getting voters to forget its former coalition with its far-left friends in the UPP.
The spread of power is also a serious issue. Some Democratic Party candidates who were elected as local government heads in the 2010 election offered certain positions to the UPP. If it weren’t for candidate consolidation, these positions would have been selected through open competition.
Many people argue that electoral alliances are a matter of political choice. But they don’t understand the structure of party politics. In Korea, political parties receive state subsidies. Once they receive government funding, they are not independent civic groups. They are public entities with responsibilities toward the community.
The basic duty of a political party is to pick and present candidates for elections. They need to produce competent figures armed with party policies. When candidates compete, voters have more choices. When candidacies are consolidated, some voters would have to make a choice against their will or give up their votes.
There are claims that opposition parties need to join forces because of the political topography of Korea. But the nation teaches its younger generation not to distort the means to attain goals. How can political parties opt for distorted measures to simply win elections?
Ahn Cheol-soo is examining the issue of candidacy consolidation in the upcoming election. In the last presidential election, he advocated for “new politics” but opted for the old politics of candidacy consolidation. The candidate who Ahn dropped out of the race for ended up losing. Once again, he is being ambiguous. Ahn said in an interview, “I conceded my candidacy in the mayoral election in 2011 and the presidential election in 2012. This time, it is my turn to get a concession.” He seems to be talking about the Democratic Party, but he needs to get his facts straight.
In 2011, Park Won-soon was an independent, and in negotiations, Ahn gave up his candidacy at the last minute because he thought Park was more suitable for the job. He gave up, but he did not give way. In the 2012 presidential race, he did not concede but lost in the game of consolidation.
Whether Ahn conceded or not, it is problematic to consider a candidacy something he could offer up. In a famous noodle soup commercial from the 1970s, two brothers allow each other to taste a bowl of noodles first. Making a concession in the past does not give Ahn the right to a concession this time. The Seoul mayor position is not a bowl of noodles.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
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