Where are the young politicians?The opposition People Power Party (PPP) is struggling as young members in their 20s and 30s leave the conservative party en masse. After expressing their disappointment about the defeat in the primary of Rep. Hong Joon-pyo, a presidential candidate of the PPP, they are posting photos of a document proving their departure on social media. Internal division is being fueled by the conspiracy that they just joined the PPP to help elect a candidate who will benefit Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP).
Regardless of the truth behind their joining — and departing from — the PPP en masse, that’s not just an issue for the party. Given the relatively high ratio of swing voters among that age group, politicians must not just dismiss them as opponents of the establishment. The young generation has demonstrated disgruntlement with their older counterparts who want to push a financial burden to them through the national pension, for instance, after enjoying the fruits of economic development. Their dissatisfaction could signal a generational conflict over jobs, income and real estate beyond party lines.
The young make up a bigger share in our demographics as seen in the April 15 parliamentary elections last year. Voters aged between 18 to 39 were about 3 million more than those above 60. Presidential candidates are wooing the young generation with sugarcoated promises, but the generation shows a diverse ideological spectrum. As a result, if a candidate presents platforms targeting that age group, he or she gets attacked.
Political parties must establish a system to help the young generation enter the political arena and raise its voice in the decision-making process. Lee Jun-seok, the thirtysomething head of the PPP, already proposed to lower the age of candidates running for a seat in the National Assembly or a head position at municipal governments to 19. The idea was also welcomed by DP Chairman Song Young-gil.
Political parties in Korea have recruited fresh faces in election seasons to show off their kinship with the young generation. But they have a long way to go.
In Europe, most political leaders in their 30s started their political activities early on. For example, 35-year-old Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz became a member of the People’s Party at 17 and served as foreign minister in his 20s.
Our political parties must strive to nominate young candidates for public office through a bottom-up nomination process, not a top-down one. Because of such outdated nomination processes based on personal connections with party leaders, candidates could not keep their promise to pick fresh faces on a regular basis. The time has come for politicians to revitalize our politics.