Reinforcing citizens’ role
The long-held belief in democracy has been challenged around the world. Korea is no exception. For the last three decades, we took pride in achieving industrialization and democratization at the same time. But we end the year with a sense of wretchedness and insecurity. Various problems across politics, the economy and society have become more tangled than resolved. In particular, the political sphere — or the democracy of the country — is turning more and more dysfunctional and degraded. How have we come to this?
First, we were overconfident about passing the first test in political democratization. The constitutional reform in 1987 to institutionalize a direct presidential election was truly a landmark achievement to bring about a peaceful end to 25 years of authoritarian military rule. During the following years — especially after the two major financial crises in 1997 and 2008 — our economic and social inequalities worsened, undermining national unity and integration.
As a result, democratization in the economy, not in politics, dominated the campaign agenda for both the ruling and opposition parties during the presidential race in 2012. But the demanding work of establishing a welfare state can hardly be accomplished when people, as well as presidential candidates and political parties, neither realized nor wanted to see that the task of enforcing and achieving equality in the economy could be even more challenging and difficult than democratization in the political arena.
Second, looking back on our trajectory of running the hard-earned direct presidential election system in 1987, Korea has been gradually regressing, rather than advancing, on the establishment of the quintessential parliamentary democracy, the core of political democratization, when it comes to the stable systematization of the operations of the National Assembly and political parties and the enhancement of their efficiency.
Some political experts point out that our legislature two decades ago, including the 13th Assembly dominated by a majority coalition of opposition parties, were even more democratic and productive than now. In such pitiful retrogression of our representative democracy, how can we ensure the much-desired construction of economic democratization or a welfare society?
We must not forget that representative democracy innately has a contradictory mechanism that can work against such a goal. Under the basic principles, representative democracy must ensure participation of the masses and reflect their views in public policies. But the level of public participation and influence in national affairs is not always proportionate to effective state governance.
The people’s political participation and state governance actually run separately, as eager public participation in politics cannot automatically ensure security and efficiency in state governance. Not a few governments around the world today are running political systems that place effective state governance ahead of public participation in politics. Excessive public say in national affairs can actually hinder the progress of state governance.
Finding a balance between public participation in politics and efficient state management through moderation and prevention of conflicting factors to try to generate productive outcomes in public policies by reflecting the people’s voices would determine the success in representative democracy. So how can we strike such a balance?
We could first try to seek out reforms in the constitutional system to legitimize public participation in politics and at the same time raise productivity in state governance. However, debate on constitutional reform during a political stalemate in particular could aggravate political confusion and economic problems.
Before starting wasteful arguments on constitutional reform, we should go back to the basics of ensuring competency in elected leadership. It is up to the president and legislature to select the figures running the government, but it is the people who elect them. Although we the people have brought electoral democracy to this land, we have over the years grown to take our voting rights too lightly. We must break the lazy habit and be more faithful to our fundamental duty and rights.
We must muster the will and wisdom to pick the right kind of people and parties that can deliver balance and efficiency in state affairs in the parliamentary election next April and the presidential election the following year. We must use our strong voting power leverage to reward or punish politicians, as argued by Prof. Kang Won-taek from Seoul National University. Instead of crying out for democratization, we must do our civilian role to advance democratization in politics and the economy at the same time.