PSPD in English Archive 2003-11-08   3128

Korean NGOs Movement Facing the 2002 Presidential Election

Korean NGOs Movement facing the 2002 Presidential Election: Outdated Politics vs. Peoples’ Power

Lee Tae-ho(gaemy@pspd.org)

Policy and Planning, PSPD

Election campaigns, especially presidential elections, used to be very heated in Korea. The expectation of the people for an election is peculiarly high because just 15 years have passed since direct election was acquired through the democratization movement against the military dictatorship. However there are a few negative aspects to the heated election campaigns. The animosity between localities, rooted in the unequal policies applied under the military dictatorships, is promoted rather than deterred through direct elections. The current political powers, maintained through the long period of military dictatorship, fall short of their peoples’ expectation. The political powers, irrespective of their having roots in the past military dictatorship or in its traditional opposition, are not far from past conservative practices in that they are principled according to their local power base, and in their being under their party leader’s arbitrariness. It is thus not an overstatement to say that the enthusiasm of election campaigns so far has arisen from the animosity between regions rather than from competing policies among political parties.

The former presidents without one exception experienced some harsh criticisms for monopolistic abuse of power and unfair personnel appointment according to region, school relations, and kinship. The current president, Kim Dae-jung, with his presidential slogan “the peoples’ government”, is not free from that kind of criticism. The inauguration of president Kim was a revolutionary transition of power to the traditional opposition party. His presidency was launched on a weak basis in comparison with his predecessors because his party held a minority in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, typical power-related corruptions were committed by his three sons. These scandals gave fatal harm to his moral reputation at the close of his presidency.

The voters are deeply disappointed with the political corruption and outdated political practices maintained even after political power was transmitted to the traditional opposition party. Though there have been some political improvements under Kim’s administration ?by his dealing successfully with the economic crisis, the relationships between the two Koreas, and social welfare policy – the government hesitated to reform the political fundamentals. The lax reform will of Kim rather strengthened the unity of the conservative dissident groups. Labor and citizens, who supported president Kim with aspiration for having him reform politics, were forced to bear the cost of half-reform. This result was predictable, because Kim’s presidency actually relied on political funds drawn from traditional conservative sources.

The Peoples’ Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and other NGOs have campaigned since early this year to uproot the illicit formation of political funds, which directly brings corruption when a party takes power, in preparation for the presidential election scheduled this coming November. NGOs are advocating transparency of political funds by opening their sources to the public, rigid punishment for money tactics and other illegal campaigning, eradication of illicit election money formation by strengthening the money laundry prohibition, improvement of ethical ordinances for officials to cover new types of bribery like stocks, and introduction of a special investigation procedure independent from political powers. Both ruling and opposition parties have responded by adopting the policies drafted by NGOs as presidential campaign promises. However, NGOs are strongly insisting that their drafts be legislated before the election, because, in light of president Kim뭩 example, the campaign promises of a party are subject to being forgotten after the party takes power. In addition, if a candidate is elected owing a lot to political money, the candidate will hardly impose equal standards on the sources of the money during his or her presidency. The corruption scandals committed by the 3 sons of president Kim sufficiently justify the arguments of NGOs. The presidential candidates from both parties are now making gestures to enact into legislation the policies NGOs suggested before the November election, but they have no actual will to do it. The current situation seems desperate because the political parties are entirely devoting themselves to attacking each other, ignoring people’s aspirations for reform,

Voters are unusually taking a dispassionate attitude toward this coming presidential election. This unusual atmosphere surrounding voters is not necessarily negative because it arose from the voters’ recognition of political reality. As the heated expectations for president Kim in his early presidency came down, and president Kim is now going through a typical lame duck phase, voters have become realistic that this coming presidential election should not be to select a ‘superman’ owing his power mainly to his own region, school relations, and kinship. However, the animosity between regions is still the dominant standard among voters in elections.

The incomplete reform led by the contemporary government resulted in a strong unity of the existing political elites, including the conservative media powers, and the unity is subsequently generating a strong political influence. In particular, the animosity between regions is reemerging under these influences. Meanwhile, the corruption scandals and the state’s responsibility transferred to the people, as a result of incomplete reform, incurred peoples’ rigid distrust in politics as a whole. People are not hesitating to reveal their disillusionment about politics. The parties, when corruption scandals have been exposed, make political warfare with each other, rather than making opportunities to reflect upon themselves and to secure fundamental political reform. Now, it is rare to find a person who has some expectation about the promises and policies suggested by contemporary politicians.

The trust of the people deteriorated mostly as a result of the presidential race becoming invalidated in the ruling party. After president Kim ended his role in the ruling party as the leader so as to confront various corruption scandals involving his sons, the party intended to reform itself by introducing the presidential race system, which partly came from the American preliminary election system. The presidential race was experimentally conducted with the passionate participation of people, especially young voters, during the early part of this year, and it produced a surprising result. A candidate is named Roh Moo-hyun, who argued for fundamental reform of politics but who occupied the weakest position among candidates in the ruling party, was elected as the presidential candidate representing the party. Though Roh has his birth origin in the south-east part of Korea where the current opposition party뭩 roots are, he won the presidential race by a great majority of votes in the south-west part, which has been the region fundamental for the current ruling party. With his win he was expected to be someone who could dismiss the deep seated animosity between both regions. As the presidential race practice in the ruling party spread over to the other parties, voters dreamed of political reform in a fundamental way. However, Roh failed to manage to differentiate himself from the corruption scandals of his party that were revealed after his winning on this past March. In addition, he exercised weak leadership in handling conflicts inside his party. While Roh won high popularity among the people, he was placed in a weak position in his party. The popularity of Roh representing the ruling party has now rapidly diminished to 17% in the approval ratings. In the meantime, another presidential candidate, Jung, who declared his candidacy counting on his high popularity obtained as the vice president of FIFA from his successful management of the World Cup which took place on June in Korea, has about 30% in the approval ratings, overriding the ruling party in spite of all criticisms: his lack of political capacity, and his high potential for cozy relations between politics and business as a Korean Chaebal family member. The Korean Democratic Labor party also ran recently for the presidency, aiming at the openings left by the conservative candidates, in spite of the unfavorable current situation of labour unions, and the powerful conservative stream encouraged by the incomplete reform of Kim’s administration.

The current situation facing the presidential election is uneasy, but some hopes of political reform could be found in the ratification process of the appointment of a Prime Minister in the latter half of this year. The ratification of the Prime Minister nominated by president Kim was rejected twice in succession. The first nominee, a female president of a university, did not get the consent of the National Assembly because of her immorality, such as her tax evasion. The second nominee, a former CEO of a newspaper company, was also rejected for similar reasons of immorality. The standards of the people have become very strict about the morality and capacity of high-level officials since the corruption scandals were exposed. This has important implications for the coming election: the strict standards of the people will be applied equally to the presidential candidates. In addition, the TV debates among candidates, introduced during the presidential election in 1997, will be a crucial and effective stand on which to test each candidates’ capacity.

The PSPD and other Korean NGOs launched a nationwide solidarity body ‘Voters’ Solidarity for the Presidential Election’ in September, in which about 300 NGOs are members. This group is aiming at: completing institutional reform prior to this coming presidential election in ways that will prevent corruption; having each candidate adopt the reform bill drafted by NGOs as one of their campaign promises; and disseminating information about each candidate, such as their administrative capacity, will for reform, and morality. For these purposes the group plans on putting pressure on each candidate to ratify a series of laws related to elections prior to this coming presidential election so as to prevent elements of political corruption, such as illegal political funds, money laundering, ethical ordinances, and special investigations. The group picked 10 crucial policies out of their reform bill to present to each candidate to become top policies in their campaign promises. In addition, the body will organize each local group to monitor illegal campaigning such as money tactics and the formation of illegal political funds. All the information collected from monitoring will be opened for voters to refer to.

The Voters’ Solidarity for the Presidential Election will not be as influential as the movement that was a voters’ nationwide movement to defeat unqualified candidates in the general election two years ago. In a presidential election it is very hard to get a consensus among NGOs in singling out one candidate to defeat, because NGOs vary in their political preferences. Even if a consensus among NGOs were made, there would still be doubts about the fairness of the decision-making process. Thus, the Voters’ Solidarity for Presidential Election stands neutral concerning the presidential candidates. Instead, the group is concentrating on close observation of the candidates’ morality, presidential capacity, and will for reform, to provide voters with objective sources to refer to. The group just started a campaign to collect signatures from one million voters (approximately 3 % of total voters), who will commit themselves to electing a candidate who will accept the policies suggested by the NGO group. Though the current situation is not favorable to the group’s movement, voters are believed to be ready to create a new record never expected by politicians, like they did in the previous elections.

Lee Taeho


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