Leaving behind the left
The author is a professor emeritus and former president of Korea University.
The January edition of Le Monde diplomatique focuses on the retreat of the left in Europe and projected that it will lose again in France’s April 10 presidential election. The Socialists governed the country for about 20 years. However, as the left has lost the trust of the people, the possibility of their victory in the upcoming election is nearly naught, according to the journal.
The retreat of the left is being seen across Europe. Two decades ago, 13 out of 15 EU member countries were under leftist governments. Only seven are left among 27 EU members. Benoit Breville, editor and deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, and Serge Halimi, its president and director, devoted a feature to the reasons why the left has become so weak in Europe.
They found two common disappointments of leftist governments. First, they emulated the right’s platforms without putting into action their ideology. The second was “financial strangulation.” The Socialist government of France sought practical and centrist platforms and led privatization and financial liberalizations. The Socialist Party neglected pleas from its traditional voting base of laborers and working-class people. Leaders from labor and socialist parties moved onto well-paying institutions upon resigning from office. Former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn became the head of the International Monetary Fund. Three French associates of Francois Mitterrand took charge of financial globalization — Jacques Delors as the president of the European Commission, Henri Chavranski at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Michel Camdessus as head of the IMF. They displayed the hypocrisy of leftist technocrats being converted to neoliberalism.
The left also disappointed in fixing pension insecurity and high unemployment. Since the left wing failed to keep campaign promises, they lost voters in elections that followed. “The left has often been in the cockpit. And this is part of its current problem, as voters’ memories of the left in power have dampened their willingness to grant it the controls again,” the writers observed.
When elections come around, political parties turn to Hotelling’s Law, or the principle of minimum differentiation reasoned by mathematician Harold Hotelling. For example, ice cream vendors are pulled towards the middle of the beach instead of the far end in order to reach more sunbathers. In politics, candidates aim for the middle of the political spectrum as going too far left or right may lose centrist votes. The left chose practicality over fundamental principles , and the right turned more to ideology than efficiency. All played out as election strategies to generate centrist platforms. When they failed to act on their promises, centrist voters felt betrayed and decided not support them the next time.
South Korean politics have meandered down a similar path. President Park Geun-hye employed many leftist ideas in her campaign platforms. But she lost the trust of both sides after failing to reconcile her half-baked mix and was impeached at the end. President Moon Jae-in vowed to revitalize the economy, create jobs, and end the politics of division and conflict. He also failed. Each candidate promises to be engaging towards the center, but when they come to power, they become oblivious.
Whether on the right or left, self-righteousness generates hypocrisy and obsession leads to impotence. One must admit to the weaknesses and seek help to be appreciated for genuineness and competence. Conflict between the self-righteous left and the hard-core right has destabilized politics. For the left to extend power, it must overcome its dilemma and demonstrate its true ability and sincerity. The Cho Kuk debacle, the faceoff between former justice minister Choo Mi-ae and prosecutor general Yoon Suk-yeol, controversy over satellite parties and the Daejangdong scandal, real estate price spike and tax bombardment all exposed the leftist government for insincerity and incompetence. If leaders on the left wing keep up their hypocrisy, pragmatism without principles, and divisiveness, they cannot hold onto power.
A book on German chancellors by former prime minister Kim Hwang-sik can be seen as a guide to the future of Korean politics. The book studied the leadership of post-war chancellors responsible for German unification and prosperity. German leadership either from the left or the right upheld principles but at the same time accepted the need to comprise and cooperate with opponents. Korea must put an end to the winner-take-all mighty presidency and reinvent the 1987 system that opened the era of direct presidential election. Instead of rhetorical centrist platforms and promise of harmony, politics must demonstrate true bipartisanship as in the coalition under President Kim Dae-jung. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.