Since being reintroduced in 1995 after more than three decades of hiatus, local elections have drawn lukewarm attention from voters. Voter turnout has usually hovered around 50 percent.
Just three weeks from now, the June 4 municipal polls seem almost consigned to oblivion in the sorrowful mood following last month’s ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives. People show little interest in who is running for mayor or councilor in their municipalities.
Main political parties raced to complete their candidate nominations, which had been pushed back out of respect for the victims of the disaster, and are set to refrain from staging vociferous campaigns. It is understandable that they are cautious to avoid being out of tune with public sentiment in the run-up to the elections. But this cannot justify the lack of effort to put forward effective policies and competent candidates to boost regional competitiveness and living conditions.
The ruling and opposition parties should recognize that they cannot deflect criticism or gain support from voters by just blaming the government for its mishandling of the ferry disaster. Voter distrust in political circles was reflected in the results of recent opinion polls that showed approval ratings had declined for both the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy since the maritime accident on April 16.
For their part, voters should avoid being gripped by grief and frustration for too long, and give due attention to the local elections, the outcome of which holds the key to improving their everyday livelihoods for the next four years. They should distinguish competent and moral figures who can contribute to the advancement of their municipalities from pothole politicians who attempt to entice them with wasteful projects that would increase local government debt.
The need to choose the right candidates in the local polls is ever increasing, as we live in a time when regional economies, especially city economies, matter more than national ones. Cities, which have become a requirement for prosperity, will be the main drivers of economic growth. Global investors increasingly tend to view the world as a network of cities rather than a collection of countries.
Research shows the increase in a nation’s per capita income is linked to the level of its urbanization. Korea has certainly become one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. But efforts are still needed to enable its cities to enhance their competitiveness and project themselves into the global economy. Voters need to keep this far-sighted consideration in mind when they cast ballots in future elections beyond the upcoming municipal polls.
A recent survey of competitiveness of 84 cities across the nation, conducted by a university institute in Seoul, may serve as a reference for local residents in grasping what should be done to promote their places as more attractive destinations for investment and tourism. It should be noted that some cities such as Changwon, Cheonan and Asan have grown rapidly in recent years by forging business-friendly conditions. The subsequent rise in tax revenues, in turn, has helped improve their living environment.
In an era of international competition between cities, it is increasingly important to build unique brands and strengths. Voters should look closely at the list of candidates to decide who might be better prepared to serve this task.