Political commentators have called the current 19th National Assembly the worst parliament ever, extremely unproductive and dysfunctional. I will bet my bottom dollar that the 20th Assembly is likely to be even worse.
Perennially bickering political parties agreed on a new constituency boundaries map with just 50 days left before the vote, the legal deadline. They finished nominating candidates only last week and began campaigning this week. With just a fortnight to go before the election, most voters do not know much about most of the candidates, let alone their policies.
I can find no better word than the "damnedest" to describe the nominating process of the major parties, which has turned out to be a race to the bottom.
The biggest, if not the only, criteria for candidates of the ruling Saenuri Party is to show loyalty to President Park Geun-hye who wants to maintain her political clout and exercise influence after she leaves Cheong Wa Dae less than two years from now. Politicians unfaithful to Park could not get a ticket, however popular they may be in their precincts. So much so that even the Saenuri Party's leader, the head of the "non-Park" faction, compared the nomination process to one in a "dictatorial state."
The situation in the main opposition party is close to a black comedy. The Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK), split between factions following two deceased liberal presidents — Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun — ushered in a former economics tutor and key campaigner of President Park to be their interim leader.
Americans may find it easier to understand by imagining the U.S. Democrats picking Karl Rove as their provisional head to get a badly needed election victory despite their totally different political philosophies. Kim Chong-in, the new head of the MPK, says he shares the liberal opposition's economic policy focusing on better distribution. Yet Kim's exclusion of the labor unions from key decisions within the party and his hard-line stance on the inter-Korean relationship belong to the 1970s and run counter to the time-honored policies of the relatively liberal party.
The MPK may think its shift to a middle-of-the-road platform will help gather votes, but they could end up "losing rabbits at home while running after hares in the mountains."
There is also a new splinter group, the People's Party, led by Ahn Cheol-soo, a medical doctor-turned-computer virus expert-turned-politician who attempted to run for the presidency in 2012 but gave up — and will try again in 2017. Ahn has shown little in terms of political philosophy or policy except that his party will squeeze in between the already indistinguishable Saenuri Party and the MPK by splitting the liberal political base, the southwestern Jeolla provinces.
With the opposition fragmented like this and losing — rather abandoning — their political identities, it is a small surprise that the conservative ruling party attempts to win more than a majority in the 300-seat unicameral house and even seeks to get 200 seats, enough by itself to revise the Constitution, and become like Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, the different factions of which have taken turns in governing the country through most of its postwar period.
The Saenuri Party is even turning the upcoming election into a "judgment of the opposition," saying that the MPK did not cooperate in railroading President Park's controversial bills into laws. In what sort of democratic country does the chief executive regard the legislative branch as little more than a rubberstamp of the administration, and the governing party calls for voters to punish the political opposition for what it is supposed to do — opposing (a one-sided operation of state affairs by the government and governing party)?
Much of the blame for this lamentable state should go to the opposition parties themselves. Can't they see what's happening in the United States and the United Kingdom? Even in those citadels of market-is-everything neo-liberalist capitalism, democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn enjoy considerable political support. Regardless of the electability of these politicians, which of the self-styled Korean progressives have maintained such ideological consistency and political passion for the weaker class of the society?
It seems to be too late to expect that the political opposition will change themselves during the remaining two weeks and improve the situation for the 90 percent of the have-nots in this country with an increasingly stagnant economy. But they should at least do what opposition parties should do in an election season — criticize the government's policies with plausible logic and, more importantly, offer alternative policies that can win voters' minds.
All this leaves voters with the mission to save the nation's democracy and themselves. They only have to think whether their lives are better off and safer than they were three years ago. Some may refute that these are parliamentary elections, not a presidential election. But in a country with a presidential system as Korea has, elections in the middle of the presidential tenure can't help but serve as a mid-term appraisal of the leader. Moreover Koreans have just witnessed who is the "real owner" of the ruling party through the nomination process.
President Park vowed to be a leader who keeps promises. Three years ago, she pledged to share the fruits of growth evenly and ease the pains of household debt that reached 963 trillion won ($826 billion). Today, most families' incomes remain little changed from 2012, or reduced as the share of GDP, while their debt has swelled to more than 1,200 trillion won.
People, particularly the less well-to-do, can ill afford to repeat voting contrary to their class's interests — needy people support the party that represents the rich. Nor should it be a popularity vote. If Koreans skip voting out of political apathy or throw their ballots to those with the same regional and school backgrounds as theirs, they will have to brace for more of the same over the next four to six years — or far longer.
Choi Sung-jin is The Korea Times' senior writer. Contact him at email@example.com.