Respect democratic practices
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In 1987, Korean politics was a competition to see who had more supporters. Presidential candidates Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Roh Tae-woo competed. Kim Young-sam showed off his popularity by filling Busan’s Suyeong Bay with supporters, while Kim Dae-jung held a demonstration at Boramae Park in southern Seoul to condemn election rigging.
The government had the power to mobilize the people at the time. When Roh was stumping in Yeouido, western Seoul, sign posts were placed in front of Daebang Station to show people where to go. The mobilized participants were ordered to line up behind the sign with the name of their town. Not only public companies but also financial institutions ordered their workers to check in at Yeouido.
Buses from around the country lined up at stumping events. As party leaders with absolute power had the right to make nominations, lawmakers and aspiring politicians had to demonstrate their ability to gather supporters. Still, the number of supporters at events was seen as a barometer of public sentiment.
Yet a candidate’s speech was hardly heard. The participants were satisfied by simply seeing a candidate from a distance. Even if they could not see their candidate, they were satisfied to be there to show their enthusiasm. They dressed up to cheer for their politician and made signs to show their support.
It was not an event to judge a candidate, compare policies or make a decision. Of course, many voters showed their true support. Some were enthusiastic fans who attended all the stumping events throughout a campaign period after taking leave from their jobs. In the past, it was a legitimate festival of democracy as it was the only opportunity for ordinary citizens to express their political intentions under the authoritarian government.
A television debate hosted by the Kwanhun Club that year was a new idea. Voters were fascinated to see the broadcast debate because it was a great opportunity to compare the policies of candidates. But these days, even TV debates have been tainted as a tool for image-centric politics. Participants use sensational expressions to hurt their opponents. New communication tools once regarded as a possible means for direct democracy are now producing fake news. They fuel confrontations. Instead of the virtue of democracy — such as dialogues and compromises — they are mass producing extreme warriors who refuse to make compromises.
Politics on the streets are heating up again. Demonstrations to protest the government’s decision to reopen the market to U.S. beef imports, to condemn the government’s failure to cope with the Sewol ferry’s sinking and to demand a presidential impeachment took place. Their voices are still lingering on the streets, as politics failed to absorb them.
The Moon Jae-in administration says it was a product of the candlelight vigils, but it placed the demonstrations in a place beyond the law — instead of discussing them within the system. Instead of having dialogue to find a resolution, it gagged political opponents by saying, “How dare you challenge the government backed by the candlelight protests?”
Vengeance begets vengeance, and extremes beget extremes. By making street politics a part of our daily lives, public confrontation has also become part of daily our lives. It has been two years since Moon took office, but the conservative rallies are occupying central Seoul every week. Now the largest opposition party has joined the protests. The Liberty Korea Party (LKP), which has kept its distance from the far-right Taegukgi rallies, has joined the march.
Street politics is a part of direct democracy, yet dialogues and compromises are difficult. Instead of having discussions, you only hear slogans. They don’t care what other people are saying: they only pay attention to who speaks. They don’t think about whether their words are right or wrong. Whether or not you are on our side is the standard for good and evil.
It is worrisome that this situation won’t improve. New communication tools once seen as an opportunities for advancing our democracy are now spearheading factional politics. Following in the footsteps of the previous administrations, this administration is marred by a public opinion manipulation campaign. With one year left before the general election, they are putting in an all-out effort. The opinions of the few are manipulated to look like the majority, leading up to factional confrontations. Instead of resolving social conflicts, politics fuels division.
In the past, political dialogues took place quietly, although extreme confrontations took place on the surface. Yet they have all disappeared: the negotiators are now on the streets, politics has lost its dignity and politicians only look out for their supporters, not for the people.
Democracy is very vulnerable before an organized, combatant destroyer, as the Weimar Republic well showed. Worsening polarization makes us question the journey of democratization. No law is valuable enough to destroy democratic practices.
The National Assembly is paralyzed over fast-tracking sensitive bills. Now is the time for talks. The election law — which cannot accurately represent the people’s support and the number of seats in the legislature — must be revised. Revising the law is extremely difficult. But it is deplorable to see the forceful push for a revision.
On Dec. 15 of last year, five political parties agreed to revise the election law and amend the Constitution. But the ruling Democratic Party (DP) linked electoral reform to a bill meant to create a new investigative body for senior government officials. The DP claimed it needs the new bill on a law enforcement authority in order to persuade its lawmakers as “electoral reform is unfavorable to the ruling party.” So why is the ruling party demanding that the main opposition LKP accept the deal? The DP must respect the original agreement.
The LKP must also act carefully before destroying the National Assembly act that bars physical altercations in the legislature. The bill is aimed at protecting the opposition parties. It must think carefully what it will gain by violating the law in the National Assembly.
Democracy is about accumulating practices. But the law governing the National Assembly was revised because that was not kept. If this law is ignored, the legislature will quickly become savage. If it gives up the desire to use the current situation to win public support for the general election, there is still room for dialogue.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 35