Political parties in peril

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Political parties in peril

I am a scholar teaching politics and studying the subject, and I never thought I would be writing this column today.

About 20 years ago, I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the ideological reforms of Western European political parties. Back then, I had a strong belief that political parties were the engine leading democracy.

When the window of democratization opened in Korea in 1987, I had the expectation that party politics would be more active and that the study of political parties would be the center of political science.

But Korea’s political parties continued to regress in the face of this historical juncture in which superpowers nationwide are overtly attempting to take control of the peninsula.

In about a month, the general election will take place, but the ruling and opposition parties only managed to approve a long-overdue electoral map just this week.

This is the peak of their shamelessness. While the United States and China boisterously compete against each other on the peninsula to enter the era of the “Group of 2,” the ruling and opposition parties have continued their fight. The ruling Saenuri Party pushed forward new bills as the opposition countered with a filibuster. And these disappointments have even prompted some analysts to argue that party politics must be abandoned once and for all.

Of course, political party crises are not new in an advanced democracy. As we can see by the popularity of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, based on the rage and frustration felt by the lower- and middle-classes, an outsider’s politics often serves as a threat to an established political party.

But the parties in such countries, with more than a century of democracy, have countered crises through remarkable reform. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher reformed Britain’s Conservative Party to overcome government paralysis and embody neoconservatism. Francois Mitterrand ended decades of factional fighting in the Socialist Party to win the French presidency.

These examples share some common points.

First, a significant political or economic crisis took place, and a reformist group detected the crisis and moved to use it to change the power structure within its own political party. Second, the group kept up with changes over time, adopting new policies and ideologies.

Let’s use this scenario in looking at the Saenuri Party and Minjoo Party of Korea.

First, the public has already detected a crisis. As we struggle with an aging society and a wealth distribution gap, advanced economies are entering a new era, with autonomous cars, virtual reality and new biotechnology.

The era of a two-dimensional Korea-U.S. alliance influencing Korea’s foreign affairs and security has ended. The peninsula has become a multidimensional chess board wherein the United States, China, Japan and Russia are playing the game. The Korean people are experiencing an enormous whirlwind of change, but our political parties are failing to realize it.

The Saenuri Party preemptively took the initiative to tailor a welfare program and economic democracy before the 2012 presidential election, but this story of innovation no longer applies to the ruling party. No reformist group has emerged to promote change. We are left with a power struggle between loyalists to President Park Geun-hye and other conservatives.

The Minjoo Party’s clock on reforms, meanwhile, stopped in 2002. The reformists who sensitively detected an economic and social crisis in 2002, and in the aftermath of the International Monetary Fund bailout, were Chun Jung-bae, Shin Gi-nam and Chung Dong-young.

These three detected a crisis, and their efforts for reform led to Korea’s first-ever presidential primary and brought about the Roh Moo-hyun administration to destroy the existing order in Korean politics.

But how many Minjoo Party supporters today see the seasoned political skills of the party’s interim leader, Kim Chong-in, as true reform?

Now that our political parties have failed to carry out reform to meet the changes of the times, they have three paths in front of them.

First, an antipolitical agitator will lead politics and political parties will become just a component in the hijacking of party politics. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is a good example.

Second, apolitical parties will become election machines as they concentrate on their immediate survival.

The third option brings a little hope. After the postwar order in Western Europe collapsed in the 1970s and ’80s, political parties fell into a serious crisis. At the time, the driving force for reform came from the people, not the parties.

The citizens of Western Europe raised issues that had been ignored by politicians via the green movement, the gender equality movement and the peace movement. They also directly challenged the bureaucracy of their dinosaur-era political parties.

Public criticism, in the end, served as the stepping stone for innovation in Western European politics.

Which road will the political parties in Korea choose to take?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, March 4, Page 31

The author is a political science professor at Chung-Ang University.

by Jaung Hoon
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