Politics has not kept pace with social change
Economist May 4th 2017
Last year millions of South Koreans took to the streets to secure the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, their conservative president. She is now behind bars; her trial, on charges of corruption and abuse of power, began this week. On May 9th the country will pick a new president in a snap election. The winner looks almost certain to be Moon Jae-in, the liberal whom Ms Park defeated at the last election in 2012.
The scandal tested South Korea’s young, raucous democracy—and it passed. No one was killed. The often cautious press vigorously pursued the allegations that Ms Park had divulged state secrets to a confidante and colluded with her in extorting large sums from private firms. Legislators, including many from Ms Park’s own party, voted convincingly to impeach her. The constitutional court unanimously upheld their decision.
South Korea, in contrast with its northern neighbour, is an inspiration to many. In 1970 less than half of South Koreans went to secondary school; now they are more likely to graduate from university than people in any other country. In five decades GDP per person has risen 20-fold, to nearly $40,000 (adjusted for the local cost of living). In a single generation, the country went from beggar to donor, showing that rapid growth and democracy can go hand in hand. Its economy remained turbo-charged throughout its transition away from military rule in the 1980s and 1990s. Its recent record of holding a sitting government to account is an example to all.
Yet there is a nagging sense that politics has not kept up with social change. South Koreans are increasingly disillusioned (see article). Like disgruntled voters elsewhere, they feel that their political system is not working for them. Growth is faltering. Unemployment is surging, especially among the young. And even those who have jobs feel that there is one set of rules for the elite and another, harsher one for the masses.
Ms Park’s removal has brought some comfort to the disenchanted. She was out of touch, surrounding herself with yes-men. Her chief-of-staff had helped to draft the martial law that underpinned the regime of her father, Park Chung-hee, a military strongman who ran South Korea for 18 years until he was assassinated in 1979. Now her nemesis, Mr Moon, has promised a less imperious governing style. He says that, if elected, he will not live or work in the presidential mansion, the Blue House. Ahn Cheol-soo, another liberal candidate, says he would shrink the president’s office and work more closely with his ministers. But South Koreans want their institutions to be more responsive, so more change will be needed.
One way to curb the “imperial presidency” would be constitutional reform. At the moment presidents hire and fire prime ministers chiefly in the hope of boosting their own political standing. They have little incentive to heed voters, because only one five-year term is allowed. Most leave office with rock-bottom approval ratings and mired in scandal. To force leaders to pay more attention to the public, South Korea should allow two-term presidencies and give more power to the national assembly. That would require a two-thirds majority of MPs and a national referendum—but it could help mend the rift between citizens and their government.
Political parties need to shape up, too. Four-fifths of South Koreans do not feel that their MP represents them properly. Parties constantly split and coalesce around new presidential candidates. The two main ones have changed their names 14 and ten times respectively since 1948, making it hard for voters to keep up. With a powerful national assembly parties might represent sets of ideas, rather than serve as vehicles for individual ambition. The media could help, too, by holding all politicians more fiercely to account, as they did Ms Park.
The anti-Park protests have allowed long-ignored voices to be heard. Before the vote on impeachment, some 929,000 citizens wrote to their MPs—an unheard-of engagement with politics. A culture of impunity within corporate and political circles is being eroded, too. Lee Jae-yong, the boss of Samsung, the country’s biggest conglomerate, is behind bars for allegedly bribing Ms Park. (He denies it.) That is a striking change: his father, who remains Samsung’s chairman, was convicted of graft in 2008 but received a presidential pardon.
Outrage at Ms Park has united South Koreans previously divided by ideology. The liberal, dovish Mr Moon has gone out of his way to court conservative and hawkish voters. If he wins, he has a chance to write the next chapter of the South Korean miracle. The rest of the world should wish him well, for South Korea matters. If, one day, the odious northern regime collapses, the South will have to pick up the pieces.