Where is Korea’s third party?
Korean politics faces a turning point. The Constitutional Court’s ruling to dismantle the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) effectively removed the “third pole” political party from the system. And politics of the madness, involving controversy over pro-Pyongyang sentiment, appears to have reached its end, so the expectation now is that a realistic two-party system will take root in Korea from now on.
But the prospect, however, is questionable. The conservative ruling party appears to be mesmerized by the catharsis from removing the UPP, while the liberal opposition party has yet to find its direction. At the same time, the progressives are trying to restore - or restructure - their distorted movement of progressivism, while the reformist group is trying to organize yet another “third pole” political power.
This party is the group that ties to use the niche in the two-party system. It doesn’t have to be extreme, however. As we can see in Germany and England, it often brings a fresh wind to democratic politics. But we cannot deny that a third pole party often becomes extreme due to the expanded social and wealth gap. We are no exception. That’s why interest in a reformative alternative is high - to see whether it will be possible for a third political party to bring about change in Korean politics.
In Korea, a third political party appears to be absolutely necessary because the two current major parties - established on regionalism and class - have become untrustworthy.
In every election, candidates loudly proclaim that they will end the existing political framework of a two-party system. But those arguments disappear quickly when incoming politicians fail to establish a stable support group and instead ride on their popularity.
The once-active boom of the civic group’s participation in politics also failed to escape from this destiny, as did the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon.
But in Korea, we did have a third-pole political party that acted as a casting vote and brought an energy to politics. Kim Jong-pil’s United Liberal Democrats has took on this role. But it also disappeared after throwing support behind Kim Dae-jung in a political alliance during the 1997 presidential election.
So why does a third pole party have so much difficulty finding its place in Korea? Experts all give similar answers, blaming the current constituency system.
Under the current single-member electorate system, where the winner takes all, the largest party always has an advantage because it can rely on established supporters. But a third pole party does not have these basic resources.
In comparative politics, many express a keen interest in Korean politics. The late Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University, said Korea was a classic example that developed into a competitive two-party system from a single-party authoritarian regime. Korea achieved democratization with the expansion of the middle class based on economic growth, and it was the two-party system that settled down democracy over two regime changes.
But the middle class only becomes thinner due to a worsened wealth gap, and the two-party system is being threatened as more and more voters have difficulty finding their political voice. They will likely support an extreme third pole party, whether it is leftist or rightist.
Korea’s political challenge appears to be clear. How do we prevent voters from heading toward an extreme third pole party like the UPP? Proper choices should be offered to the voters. Our problem is no longer an issue based on regionalism or class. The gap in livelihood is actually more serious. Voters generally support environmental issues while conflicting on welfare programs. The current two-party system that’s based on regionalism and class, therefore, cannot offer a proper choice to voters.
John Maynard Keynes said that he could not be a conservative or a progressive because conservatives were only about protecting the interests of the establishment, while the progressives were disillusioned by the fantasy of destroying the existing system. His expectation, therefore, was with a third pole political party - the British Liberal Party, in his case. Today, the party acts as the casting vote between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, bringing energy to British democracy.
The current two-party system, with the ruling Saenuri Party and the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) cannot stop voters from heading toward an extreme third party. That’s why we need a new voice. It certainly seems feasible. We have more than enough resources, including Sohn Hak-kyu and Ahn Cheol-soo.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 27, Page 31
*The author is a professor emeritus of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong