Putting democracy back on track

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Putting democracy back on track

The unfolding of a modern-day Greek tragedy hits a little too close to home for us to feel only the catharsis of the Aristotelian definition of pity and fear.

Greece is not just economically shattered. Its existential political doctrine of democracy is at stake. Along with Spain and Portugal, Greece contributed to the third wave of democratization in the 1970s by achieving a successful democratic transition. Because the repercussions reached our shores, we could also achieve our democratic transition through the institutionalization of electoral democracy in 1987. The Greek crisis, therefore, has a special meaning to us.

Korea too has been in a near-bankrupt crisis, in 1997-1998, and a fast recovery from it helped restore confidence in ourselves. Citizens willingly donated their gold jewelry, not just out of patriotic duty to help the country overcome the crisis, but to salvage our hard-won industrialization and democratization. The successful hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics and 2002 World Cup Games are our trophies for our commitment and achievements. But our confidence and pride is being shaken by political dysfunction. People are beginning to question whether we will be able to keep our democracy intact and keep our economy and society on a progressive path.

We all share the responsibility for bringing about the political mess we have today. The president and legislators have all been elected through our votes. Before dumping the blame on others, we must accept our fundamental weaknesses and try to find a way out together.

Rooted in the 1948 Constitution, the Korean political democracy was designed to be practiced based on the separation of powers to ensure the principles of checks and balances. At the outset, Korean politicians still new to the school of democracy were required to navigate the realm of politics by controlling the tension between the legislature and the administration - in other words, between the National Assembly and the president - to keep the two branches independently functioning without clashing with one another.

To demand such high-level skill in running a democracy on three independent engines may have been too much to ask for from a country barely recovering from a brutal ideological war. Not surprisingly, the course was rocky. The First Republic came to a close with a civilian uprising against the extended and excessive concentration of power in the president. The Second Republic’s experiment with a parliamentary system lasted only for eight months.

The military regime that came to power afterwards through a military coup on May 16, 1961, placed top priority on industrialization to pull the country out of poverty at the expense of democracy. The president’s mighty authority left little room for the legislature’s function and civilian participation. The democracy movement in 1987 finally planted seeds to breed a true democracy by allowing the people to elect their own representatives and president to ensure that the responsibility and authority to run the country was equally shared between the National Assembly and president. The 40 years of schooling helped build the confidence in Koreans that they could finally run a democratic society with citizens and politicians working together through the principles of compromise and cooperation.

Two and a half years from now, Korea will have completed 30 years of democracy under the helm of six presidents. Many citizens are now questioning if the 1987 prescription is still viable today; our dysfunctional political state has only added to their pessimism. But before anything else, the people should admit to their ambivalent and contradictory political temperament. If they lose patience and understanding in the dreary yet necessary process of discussion and decision-making in the National Assembly, which represents the people, while complaining about the oligarchic power vested in the president, they must answer for the consequences of their negligence.

If people want to uphold their pride and confidence for the sake of their common future, they must oblige by doing their duty. First, they must ensure that power is equally shared in accordance with the Constitution and the public consensus. Second, they must work together to resolve inequalities to unite society and strengthen security and the economy. Third, they must be both wise and patient so that appropriate people with communications skills can solve political problems on a legitimate political stage through compromise. We must muster wisdom from all corners of our society to provide the impetus to accelerate sweeping political reform.

A democratic society can run smoothly only when the members exercise compassion and love for one another and understand the fundamental weaknesses in human nature. We must come together to rebuild a human-first community based on respect for one another.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 13, Page 35

*The author is a former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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