One step at a time

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One step at a time

Korean people exercised their voting rights for the first time in 1948, the year of the establishment of their modern government. The West was skeptical about the possibility of democracy taking root in the country liberated from Japanese colonial rule three years earlier. Observing all the chaos unfolding in a fledgling democracy in the Far East, a renowned columnist for The Times dropped a famous line in 1952, two years into the Korean War. “Expecting democracy to bloom in South Korea is like hoping for a rose to bloom in a garbage bin,” he wrote. But the Korean people’s aspiration for democracy proved him wrong. Even strongman Park Chung Hee had to confront democratic-spirited future presidents — Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung — during his 18-year rule after taking power through a coup in 1961. Public demands for a direct presidential election system in 1987 helped the country return to democracy.

Considering the significance of voting rights in democracy, it can be said that Koreans mostly made the right choices. Another moment of choice comes today as they elect a new president who will lead the country for the next five years. But this presidential election has been fraught with internal division, conflicts, scandals and negative attacks the likes of which we’ve never seen, instead of candidates competing over visions and policies for the future of the country. As a result, this election has degenerated into a contest in which many voters will hold their noses and choose the lesser evil. It’s a sad reality.

Yet, voters must cast their ballots. That will at least warn the victor — whether it be ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung or his rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) — of the perils of not faithfully carrying out his public duty as a head of state. In the 2007 presidential election, Lee Myung-bak had 48.7 percent of the votes — a comfortable lead over his rival — yet more people abstained from voting than those who voted for him. Thanks to their silence, an age of dominant conservatism seemed to be ushered in. But President Lee had to pay a massive social and political cost after the silent majority took to the streets over the mad cow disease scare over U.S. beef imports. In the last presidential election in 2017, too, more people did not vote than those who voted for the runner-up.

Fortunately, a whopping 36.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in early voting last Friday and Saturday despite poor management of the electoral process by the National Election Commission (NEC). NEC Chair Noh Jeong-hee apologized for substandard handling of voters infected with the coronavirus. It is lamentable that we must worry about the whereabouts of our votes in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, democracy rests on elections. If the public chooses not to vote, democracy is in peril. Voters must exercise their inalienable right to help advance our democracy one step — one election — at a time.
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