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The Voters Force a Victory for Democracy in South Korea

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

SEOUL - Despite a low turnout and much spending of money, South Korean reformists and President Kim Dae Jung can take comfort from the results of the National Assembly elections last Thursday.

The headline was that the opposition Grand National Party came close to a majority of seats. The bottom line, however, may be that South Korean politics is gradually moving toward stronger institutions and away from domination by autocratic personalities and regional loyalties.

The pre-election surprise of a North-South summit meeting announced for June appears to have had little impact on voters.

President Kim's Millennium Democratic Party in fact did somewhat better than most commentators had forecast. It was always going to be an uphill struggle. This was a midterm election, and voters have a fearsome reputation for turning on their leader.

It is often forgotten that the government's majority in the old National Assembly was owed not to the voters but to the engineered defection of a segment of Grand National Party legislators after Kim Dae Jung's election in 1997.

The biggest loser was the Millennium Democratic Party's erstwhile coalition partner, the United Liberal Democrats of Kim Jong Pil, who had their seats cut from 51 to 17. This was a clear rejection of one of the aging autocratic warhorses of South Korean politics who has been a key but always secondary player since Park Chung Hee's 1961 coup.

Kim Jong Pil has long relied heavily on the favorite son loyalties of voters in his native Chungchong province. So his failure indicates some decline in regionalism..

It may already have been an overemphasized factor in politics. Sure, the Grand National Party made almost a clean sweep of Kyongsang in the southeast, and the Millennium Democratic Party of the less populous Cholla in the southwest, home of Kim Dae Jung. But Seoul and its environs, where regional loyalties are now irrelevant, account for more than 40 percent of all seats and were the principal election battleground. The Millennium Democratic Party polled quite well there.

For the future, the Grand National Party leader and unsuccessful 1997 presidential candidate Lee Hoi Chang lacks regional identity. And whoever succeeds Kim Dae Jung as his party's candidate in 2002 will need to avoid too close a regional identification.

The Cholla connection was more liability than asset to Kim Dae Jung. He won in 1997 because economic crisis coincided with a split in the Grand National Party. The splittist then, Rhee In Je, a popular former provincial governor, is now front-runner to be the Millennium Democratic Party's candidate in 2002.

The new balance in the National Assembly should not, at least yet, reduce Kim Dae Jung to lame duck status. His party can probably cajole the United Liberal Democrats' remnants and independents into a group which will support it.

The Grand National Party, although instinctively conservative, suspicious of the North and with strong chaebol connections, knows that it cannot be seen to be against ''reform,'' still a powerful word, or to hold up reasonable efforts for dialogue with Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, further economic reforms, including the ongoing struggle to cut down chaebol influence, open the economy, liquidate failed companies, sell off assets toforeigners and complete banking reform, do not need much new legislation - just determination by the president and ministers to press ahead.

The Millennium Democratic Party has not done badly enough to undermine Mr. Kim's ability to govern effectively, given the huge powers that the president enjoys, although his authoritarian tendencies may be curbed, along with his ability to pay a heavy price in cash for progress with the North.

The low (57 percent) turnout indicated voter disillusion with money politics and name-calling. On the brighter side, the blacklisting by citizen action groups of candidates accused of misdeeds ranging from corruption to draft dodging clearlyhad an impact, particularly in the metropolitan region. Young candidates also did better than old ones.

Conservatives who formed their own party when Lee Hoi Chang cleared old guard members from the Grand National Party's candidate list failed to make an impact.

The election probably puts an end to any hopes or fears that South Korea will shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system. The president had previously promised to back the change as part of his coalition deal with Kim Jong Pil, but he failed to deliver. Now, even if Kim Dae Jung wanted it to ensure his own political survival after the end of his one-term presidency, it is most unlikely that the required two-thirds majority for constitutional change could be mustered.

Opinion is divided as to whether the system enhances cultural tendencies toward autocracy, or saves South Korea from the chaos that could result from a combination of personality-dominated parties with a parliamentary system.

This election may suggest that the debate is now less necessary. The Big Boss mentality which flourished during the era of the Three Kims is eroding as surely as the once almighty economic position of the chaebol.

Beneath a messy exterior, politics is slowly becoming more sophisticated, and the public better informed and less prone to swings between excesses of enthusiasm and demands for vengeance.