Politics requires honest parties

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Politics requires honest parties

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Kim Jin-kook

The political arena is having a heated debate over the nomination of candidates for the district- and county-level legislative councils and local autonomous governments. The chairmen of the ruling and opposition parties are scheduled to meet, but no deal is expected to be reached.

About one year ago, around the time of the presidential election, the political parties agreed that they should scrap the nomination system for local elections - where the parties just appointed nominees for each district - because the public was clearly opposed to it. In the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions, in particular, nominations by a certain political party often meant victory. Lawmakers with influence on the nomination process would pick puppet candidates for those safe seats, and the prosecution found that those nominations were often sold.

The bottom-up nomination system has also been problematic. In some regions, public opinion polls were manipulated to fix nominations. When primaries that include opinion polls take place, it is hard for a defeated contender to challenge the outcome. It seems like lawmakers have the right to vote, not the voters. Because the heads of district and county governments and members of local legislative councils are often followers of specific lawmakers, many are skeptical that they will actually perform their role of checking the National Assembly.

That is why the public feels frustrated. Lawmakers are not likely to give up their privileges. They just made the promise to end the nomination system because it was before the presidential election. Now that the local election is approaching, they have become greedy again. It is not the first time that politicians have turned brazen before an election.

The ruling and opposition parties are debating those changes rather than sticking with the nomination system because they have different interests in the matter. Of the 25 heads of the district offices in Seoul, 21 are Democrats.

Without a nomination system, the Democratic Party definitely enjoys the premium of incumbency. The current district heads will automatically become the consolidated candidates for liberals, while many new faces will compete, insisting that they represent the Saenuri Party.

If the current nomination system is kept, the Saenuri candidates will benefit because the Democrats and Ahn Cheol-soo’s new political party will split the liberal vote. Why would the Saenuri Party give up such a great opportunity?

If the nomination system remains, the public will naturally pay attention to the consolidation of liberal candidates. It will be a crucial factor in the elections for the metropolitan cities and provinces. Liberal voters are demanding the consolidation of candidates at all costs. They do not care about legitimacy. It is thoroughly about political engineering. They think of nothing but the likelihood that they will lose the election without consolidating candidates.

Is this really necessary? Even after that, will Ahn have the authority to create a new political party?

During the 1987 presidential election, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung did not consolidate their candidacies and the public criticized them for a long time. At the time, even the very basic principles of democracy were oppressed, and it was the people’s desire to end the military regime.

The times are different now. In 1987, Kim left the Democratic Party and created the Party for Peace and Democracy, arguing that about 80 percent of the people thought the political parties of the day did not represents their voices. After an eventual merger of three political parties, it became the sole opposition party, but nothing much changed.

Today, people are demanding the reform of the political parties. They have reached their limit. The “Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon” is a result of such demands. Of course, no one knows if Ahn’s new party will serve the phenomenon. It needs to be judged by the people through elections.

If Ahn does not form an electoral alliance, he may suffer defeat for one or two elections. But to become a meaningful party for the next decade, it must carry out a thorough reform to establish its identity and win the public’s trust.

Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, said in his book, “How Does a Political Party Fall?” that the Liberal Party of the United Kingdom fell not because of the growth of the working class, but because it self-destructed by failing to accommodate changing social needs.

According to Kang, the party had a good relationship with labor unions. Through an electoral alliance with the Labor Representation Committee, the predecessor of the Labor Party, it once conceded candidacies in 50 constituencies. In 1906, the Liberal Party occupied nearly 400 seats - or about 60 percent of the House of Commons - and ruled for more than a decade. But by 1924, it occupied only 40 seats.

In fact, an electoral alliance is a move to extend existing power. It is an attempt to protect established rights. In the last legislative election, the Democratic Party helped some candidates of the Unified Progressive Party to win. But after the party was criticized for allegedly being pro-Pyongyang, the DP turned its back on that alliance. It had guaranteed the UPP candidates to the people, but later denied the claim. It was a classic example of an irresponsible Korean-style electoral alliance.

It would be more appropriate to consider a multiple-winner voting system, which would allow voters to eliminate extremists - whether conservative or liberal - from politics. Only then would responsibilities become clear and politicians could talk and compromise.

There was a time in the past that the government led a population-control campaign, limiting households to just two children each. At the time, one of my relative had a third child.

“One child only thinks about himself, while two children only think about winning and losing,” he said. “When you have three kids, they listen to each other, talk, negotiate and form alliances.” It was a comment that easily could be applied to our political system.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin-kook

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