In The News

In South Korea: “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”

August 22, 2007

“This is what democracy looks like!” The cry of street demonstrators has been brought to life in the presidential primary just concluded in South Korea.

South Korea’s conservative party, the Grand National Party (GNP — or Hannara-dang, in Korean), has selected the former Mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, to be its standard bearer in the December 19th presidential election. Lee edged out Park Geun-hye, the daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee who marched Korea toward economic prosperity in the 1960s and 70s.

Much is being written about what this candidate selection means in relation to the many urgent issues confronting Korea today: dealing with a nuclear armed North Korea, a hostage crisis in Afghanistan, the problematic relationship with the United States, and — the issue most important to most Koreans — the state of the Korean economy.

In Korea, there was actually little debate over these issues during this primary since there was little distance between the chief rivals. Rather it was a no-holds-barred personal battle for leadership of the conservative party, the party which seems likely to reclaim power in the December elections.

The big story is the process. Political “process” in Korea’s young democracy has often included street battles between demonstrators and police and brawls in the national legislature. But the recently concluded primary process was not only a refreshing change that signals a new stage in democracy taking root in Korea, but a process that should attract the attention of other aspiring — as well as more experienced and some would say jaded — democracies such as the United States.

It was, however, complicated, so please pay attention. Electors in the conservative party primary came from four different groups and each were assigned a weighted contribution: locally elected delegates to the GNP party convention (weighted 20%), randomly selected party members (30%) and randomly selected non-party members who cast votes in local polling stations (30%), and the results of three separate telephone polls conducted on the same day and converted into votes (20%).

Why so complicated? As in winner-take-all contests everywhere, the greatest weakness of the process is the threat that the loser and her/his supporters will refuse to accept the outcome. Korea is a society where elections for social club directors and even church bishops frequently are unruly and divisive and the loser bolts to start a new party, a new club or a new church. This primary process was designed (and fought over until the last minute) for maximum participation and maximum transparency. Among other things, it sought to make clear that the selected candidate not only had the support of party loyalists but of the broader public.

Park Geun-hye enjoyed the passionate support of probably a slight majority among the party leaders and members (she led the party to a come-back in legislative elections last year), but would a majority in the country at large support her? This was tested through polling and voting by non-party members that together constituted 50% of the weight in the final tally.

Immediately after the final results of the complex voting process were announced “• televised live with all cameras focused on her reaction ” Park Geun-hye stepped to the podium and gave a gracious concession speech vowing to support Lee. She was almost shouted down by her emotional supporters in the hall but she then shook hands with Lee and the process was over.

Korea now enters another stage in the process of electing its next president. The main liberal political camp is still wrangling over the rules for selecting its candidate. Then there will be a head-on battle between two candidates who will represent two quite different visions for the future direction of Korea, and this is when the hard issues will be fiercely debated. The Korean electoral process will still display plenty of fireworks. However, if this process follows the example of the conservative Grand National Party, most Korean people will feel that they are real participants in a contest that will decide their future “• and democracy will have taken a major step forward in Korea and in the world.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in South Korea.

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