Liberty, democracy, peace, independence, progress, unification, justice -- these are words that have traditionally graced the titles of South Korean political parties over the past decades.
What is regrettable about the Korean political environment today is that the actual performances of the parties here have little to do with the ideals adopted for their titles. After successive restructuring of parties and regrouping of politicians in recent years, the titles of Korea’s political parties have become increasingly irrelevant to their ideological identities, if they do have any proper political ideologies.
Ahead of the 21st National Assembly elections, new parties have appeared in droves with a great variety of novel words being used in their names as their creators had little else to appeal to the public with. On the top of the list by Korean alphabetical order of 51 parties currently registered with the National Election Commission is the title, “Let’s Go, Korea Party,” which is followed by “Let’s Go, Peace and Human Rights Party.”
At least seven parties have the word “Future” in their titles, perhaps because their promoters might have wanted to impress the public with their potential as the leading forces of the future. One of them is the United Future Party, the conservative main opposition, and the other is the Future Korea Party, which was formed in February at the behest of the United Future Party aiming at grabbing seats from the 47 allotted for the proportional representation system.
Twenty new parties were born during the past two months. One of the new entries is the Deobureo Citizens Party, which was created last month by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea as its satellite party for the same purpose as the opposition Future Korea Party to snatch some seats from the proportional representation portion to be distributed through the parallel vote on parties separate from votes in district constituencies. “Deobureo” means “together” in Korean.
The Political Parties Act requires promoters to submit 200 signatures of members from the central party and at least 100 each from five or more local chapters to create a party. Registration is canceled if a party wins no seats or less than 2 percent of all votes in the general elections.
“We are one but not the same,” United Future Party and Future Korea Party leaders assert, echoed by the Deobureo brothers. The platforms in each pair of parties are almost identical. Now that the two leading parties have resorted to the brazen trick under new election rules, other political groups need not be too discreet about pursuing their interests -- that is, to grab one or more seats in the National Assembly by gathering at least 3 percent of the ballots cast in the vote on parties.
From the four corners of an intersection near my apartment hang the placards of several candidates from various parties. One of them has these two lines: “Monthly living subsidy of 1.8 million won ($1,500) to everyone aged 18 or older!” and “Emergency COVID-19 subsidy of 100 million won to everyone aged 18 or older!” This candidate belongs to the National Revolution Dividend Party, headed by Huh Kyung-young, a quixotic figure known for repeated presidential bids.
Forty-one out of the total 51 parties are participating in the elections: Six have candidates only for the district polls; 20 for proportional representation seats only; and 15 parties for both district and party tickets. The ballot for proportional representation has the names of 35 parties on it to split between them the 47 seats of the proportional representation system. The 50-centimeter-long ballot for parties is too long to be counted by machine.
While the Dividends Party offers dazzling amounts of emergency handouts for the electorate, the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition United Future Party are also competing to provide relief funds for people suffering from the pandemic. Both of the bigger parties are enticing taxpayers with the release of taxpayers’ money.
Even before the novel coronavirus hit the nation, Korean parties underwent a significant shakeup as a complicated formula of distributing proportional representation seats was introduced in a ruling party scheme to pass strategic bills in alliance with small parties. As reward for their cooperation, the splinter parties can expect bonus seats, while major parties winning many seats from district constituencies should virtually stay away from the proportional representation portion.
When COVID-19 infections in Korea and China spiked in tandem, the Moon government was faulted for failing to block arrivals from our giant neighbor. But the administration regained its poise as the spread leveled off thanks to the devoted services of medical personnel and the fine treatment system and facilities. The focus of the campaign then moved to the disaster relief money -- to be released across the country after the election.
While making its own modest offer of cash payouts for the sufferers not only from the disease but from the overall economic downturn, the main opposition United Future Party is telling voters that the nation was already on the verge of economic collapse after three years of mistaken experiments by leftist ideologues. But United Future Party strategists are aware that their attack on the government and its party is much blunted by the onslaught of the pandemic.
On the part of the ruling force, campaigners pay little attention to the usual party-level platforms because they know people are more concerned about present difficulties and instant remedies than any grand promise of economic improvement.
What better instrument is there than cash handouts stretching several digits to collect votes from tens of millions of suffering people? And how convenient it is to have them confused about the cause of their plights -- faulty economic policies or the temporary impact of the epidemic? Promises from the side that holds the key to the state coffers must sound more realistic than the ones made by those who have always tried to tighten the treasury.
But have our voters been so overwhelmed by COVID-19 as to forget about the huge mistakes the Moon government has made under the leftist dogmas of income-led-growth, industrial denuclearization and labor over capital? Yes, it is an emergency, but I trust that most of my compatriots would not exchange their votes for a few store coupons.
Now, I am quite curious to see how many votes the Dividends Party will gather on April 15, as it could gauge the degree of democratic maturity in my country.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.