Law of the jungle
Politicians have disappointed us again this year. The National Assembly was plagued with one disappointment after another throughout the year. The last act before its close was as disturbing as ever. People have grown sick and tired of the noisy idleness of the legislature. Companies are reluctant to invest in Korea any more due to a prolonged slump in domestic demand and worsening external factors, from a planned interest rate hike in the United States to a faster-than-expected slowdown in the Chinese economy.
A group of 1,000 intellectuals issued a statement last month warning that the Korean economy was in the same poor state as it was 18 years ago, when it required a massive and humiliating international bailout. The group blamed the legislature for ruining the economy with its knee-jerk opposition to government policies and refusal to approve bills specifically designed to stimulate the economy. Media outlets are of one voice in criticizing the main opposition party for blocking legislation and neglecting its duty to help revive the struggling economy and fight current hard times.
We should ponder why political parties do not pay heed to national troubles or take criticism with any sort of seriousness. Why are they not shaken by negative publicity? Why do rival politicians go on with the power struggle against each other - or even amongst themselves within a party - at a time when they should do their utmost to win favor from voters ahead of the parliamentary election in April? It doesn’t seem to make sense.
Party leaders and factional leaders alike want to expand their influence, believing the April general election to be a pivotal stepping stone in their bids in the presidential election the following year. Candidates aspiring to run in the next general election must start vying to win nominations from their parties, but they are forced to wait in anxiety to see where the power to nominate lies due to uncertainty in the rules and guidelines for candidate selections. Parliamentary governments like those in Japan and European countries are determined by the results of legislative elections. But in presidential systems like the United States and Korea, it’s possible for appealing young candidates to suddenly win the attention of the masses. That is why American presidential candidates are entirely engrossed in TV debates and media appearances.
Thirteen years ago, the relatively lesser-known Roh Moo-hyun beat heavyweight rivals one by one and ended up as the presidential candidate for the ruling liberal party. An electoral democracy can offer surprising drama and hopes depending on the collective political capabilities of the people of the nation. The capabilities of the voters can hinge on public opinion built through accurate observation and commentary from intellectuals and the media. Politicians stake everything on internal power struggles and presidential elections because of the dysfunctional governance structure of political parties and lopsided power appropriation, not because they are unfit or unethical.
There are some legislators who lack experience and some are even ethically challenged, but they nevertheless have been elected by voters. Once they join politics, they come under the law of the jungle. To become a legislator, one must be nominated by the party. To be nominated, he or she must kowtow to the leadership. The party head, therefore, must not have any say in nominations.
First, it is most imperative to come to agreement on whether to nominate candidates through a public vote or party boards. The goal of replacing up to 20 percent of the party representatives should be up to voters and party members, not the party leader.
Second, the National Election Committee should keep a strict watch over the party nomination process and help advance the system as the starting point of fair elections. We have repeatedly seen that it is not easy for parties to reform their candidate selection system by themselves.
Third, the government should reduce state funding for central party organizations and give more to local party organizations and direct their spending toward policy development.
Fourth, as soon as candidates are nominated, parties must set up a provisional election campaign committee to separate it from the party leadership and ensure that an election is a contest among candidates. Media outlets also must stop pursuing the power struggle in political parties and encourage reforms and true contests over policy. They must study both successful and failed cases in foreign party reforms so that public opinion is guided towards aspirations for future-oriented political changes.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 9, Page 35
The author is a former minister of finance and economy and lawmaker.
by Kang Bong-kyun