Crisis of democracy

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Crisis of democracy

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Bae Myung-bok

Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, left a clear message to leaders around the world as he fled his country: No matter how urgent your flight may be, you should never dump your secret files in the lake. Protesters hired divers to retrieve 20,000 pages of documents from the reservoir at his residence.

As each page was dried and published on the open online archive YanukovychLeaks.org, his corruption and secrets were revealed. All the speculations that he has taken enormous kickbacks and abused his power, gave expensive presents to his mistress and positioned snipers to suppress demonstrations were proven true. Even when you are rushing to flee the country, you must burn or shred confidential files. That is the lesson of Yanukovych.

The March 1 issue of The Economist discussed the crisis of democracy in its cover story, inspired by the dramatic turn of the Ukraine crisis. In the background of the Ukraine crisis, we can find complicated historical, cultural and ethnic issues combined with economic and geopolitical causes. What is happening cannot be measured with one standard. However, if democracy had operated properly, they could have prevented the bloodshed that resulted in more than 80 victims, the president’s flight, foreign intervention and escalation of a crisis. The dysfunctional democracy of Ukraine is the prime cause of the crisis.

Three years ago, Egyptians were eager to establish democracy as they were full of pride and celebrating that they had ousted Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year iron rule. They hoped that the movement would spread all over the Islamic world. However, Egypt’s democratic experiment turned out to be a vain dream, and effectively benefited the military leaders. Egyptians now have learned that driving out a dictator from power is far easier than establishing a democracy. Having experienced two civil revolutions 10 years apart, the Ukrainians may be feeling much the same.

Democracy is actually retreating in the 21st century instead of blooming. Democratic experiments have failed in many places, and those countries that were believed to have joined the democratic world show signs of degrading. Turkey has proven that authoritarianism and corruption are proportional to the length of the regime, and Thailand is in the midst of a prolonged confrontation and completely divided. The American nonprofit human rights organization Freedom House recently published a report on civil liberties and political rights - two basic values of democracy - claiming the two have been decreasing worldwide for eight years in a row. Many countries claim to be democracies, but are hardly democratic. More than half of the 195 countries in the world are under dictatorial rule or are superficially democratic.

Even in the developed world, where mature democracy was believed to be established, democracy is suffering from serious problems. Politicians were blinded by short-term accomplishments and made promises that they could never keep, leading people to grow indifferent and distrustful of them. As political confrontations are driven by party interests rather than the welfare of the people, national administrations are routinely obstructed and gridlocked in policy-making. The United States - once considered the role model of democracy - is experiencing serious setbacks. Using the opportunity, China is advocating that the Chinese one-party dictatorship system become a viable alternative to democracy.

Democracy is a sensitive and fragile plant. Its seed does not grow just anywhere. Free and fair elections and pluralism are only the minimum conditions for democracy. Democracy can get hurt and wither away easily. We need to protect civil rights and provide constant care to make sure the system of checks and balance works properly. We must change and upgrade the system to accommodate changes in the environment.

The Economist Intelligence Unit evaluated 167 countries for the 2012 Democratic Index. In that index, Korea was rated 8.13 out of 10 - 20th in the world. Korea was ranked higher than the United States at 21 and Japan at 23. Is that outcome satisfactory? The Economist warns that the crisis of democracy begins when elected leaders fall into the trap of “the winner takes all” mentality. Will Korea’s democracy continue to thrive? That’s the question we need to contemplate.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 4, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok



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