Is the Future of Korean Democracy Sustainable? Two scenarios for Korea, One Dictatorship, the Other Bioregional Democracy
South Korea is an interesting case that has many structural and cultural aspects of political bioregionalism. I will summarize my thoughts on Korea's wider bioregional potential in an upcoming post because this country's elites really lack any vision of the future that is positive.
Elected as an Independent Mayor of Seoul, a city of 25 million in the metropolitan region (over half of the South Korean population), he is the first independent mayor in 600 years. Mayor Park Won-soon shows his office with his split bookcase symbolizing the harsh ideological divide in Korea, and the disgust with it that helped his unprecedented election. (However, he has hence joined the left wing party, currently named the DUP.)
Seriously, South Koreans of any ideological party need to think where the country as a whole is headed. Every section of any newspaper has a headline about a major corruption story in all branches of government and society--whether legislative, executive, judicial, political parties, prosecution/police, financial, corporate, sports, media consolidation, civil rights, or crony economic policy. The daughter of the previous dictator Park (1961-1979) is even the front-runner of the right-wing party for elections in November 2012. This is all happening within a politically enhanced "free trade," that tired economic euphemism that more Koreans now understand masks a regime of politically repressive privileges for plutocratic, one-sided transnational corporate monopolies. There's nothing wrong with trade, though there's everything wrong with attempting politically to ban democratic peoples from getting the economy they want in their own region.
Furthermore, there is: a lack of concern for Korean equitable development of regions outside of Seoul, even though Seoul is not a primate magnet for in-migration as before. In 2011, there were more out-migrants from Seoul than in-migrants for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, the ongoing demise of the middle class and the lack of coverage of the welfare state for most part-time or temporary workers (the largest demographic of workers now) combine with repeated real estate bubbles to make housing for stable families in Korea out of reach and unaffordable. Note the average marriage age in Korea is now in the mid to late 30s, when it was in the mid-20s only a decade ago. This family instability financially means less or zero children per marriage. It contributes to the ongoing demographic collapse of the working population that will be combining with a quickly aging Korean society, itself without a real welfare state safety net either. Korea has the highest youth and elder suicide rates in the OECD, more than double the also-rans.
Your youth sees its elders' failure coming and wants to escape Korea. In a recent poll, fully half your teenage population doesn't even want to be Korean, desiring to abandon their Korean identity to go live their future life somewhere else, they say. They have given up on their elders and their lack of leadership, honesty, or civic mindedness. They want change, though they have no faith in their elder’s solutions at present. Still, some are ready to work for a better Korea if given direction. For instance, it was the youth of Korea that voted more than any other demographic for ‘change’ away from the traditional right or left in the recent Seoul mayoral election. However, both so-called reformed left wing and right wing parties in Korea still keep nominating the same people that destroyed their parties before. I guess there really is no one to lead Korea?
There are bad trends everywhere in Korea. That is why Korea requires change. I am unable to think of one good trend that had met with a rational response. Why is that so? It is because Korea is drifting without any plan. I could cite the lack of legitimacy in leadership or respect felt toward any major party for years built from their histories of corruptions. This is connected with their own behavior as well: Their lack of civic trust for each other repeatedly moves to illegal parliamentarian or prosecutorial antics on both sides that catalyzes open fighting in the National Assembly. There are increasing autonomous breakaway wins for both parties of the minority left and minority right, combining with independent mayors and representatives. I cite the lack of prosecution for major corruption including a lack of investigation about bedrock democratic issues of whether vote outcomes can be trusted (i.e., uninvestigated right-wing vote fraud attempts in the previous mayoral election in Seoul). I could cite the partisan use of prosecution to repress democratic challengers or social movements—even before they organize publicly. Korea last year was downgraded to ‘partly free’ in its media by some international monitors.
First, think about a future of these trends without any change. Where are you, Korea, in twenty years? Without changes now, I seriously wonder if the 25-year-old Korean democratic experiment of the Sixth Republic is sustainable in the long term. Here’s two scenarios: one bad and one good.
Scenario #1: Repeating Dictatorship and Democratic Breakdown
One bad scenario is that you might have a dictatorship once more due to a combination of mounting crises, a lack of common acceptable plan, and a waning democratic culture among elites and the people at large that witness the lack of political trustworthiness of any elites to make compromising deals with each other. Without respect for whatever party is in power and if widespread mistrust and ongoing corruption is the rule, if any government attempts to solve these many issues it will lack democratic legitimacy. It will suffer more short-term partisan attacks for attempting to solve these issues, whether the government is left or right. This would encourage an endless series of election and policy reversals on the issues above instead of a commonly accepted plan for the future. This will create the mounting crisis of Korean democracy.
As political scientist Juan Linz argued many years ago in The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978), democracies tend to breakdown toward dictatorship regularly. Why do they do this? Breakdown can occur when relatively simple crises, because of a lack of social and democratic trust, get out of control because no one is able to come to any decisive or efficacious governmental solution. When party elites and citizens mistrust and disrespect each other so much that no one is willing to work with another faction, nothing can get done except drifting into polarization while crises mount.
One route to dictatorship is popular: Linz noted that an increasingly alienated electorate in the midst of widening crises and inter-party strife without any real leadership may start to support calls for dictatorship as their only option.
Another route toward dictatorship links with the above: tiny minorities of undemocratic factions, perhaps linked to the military and complaining about corruptions or lack of efficacy of the current government, may attempt to seize power and win. This has happened twice before in Korean history in Park’s coup of 1961 (1961-1979, death by assassination) and the evolving Chun coup of 1979-81 (1979-1987, under massive protests, resigned for democratic multi-party elections--though he wanted to stay another seven years in dictatorial power). Linz argues such arrangements win because many still-democratic factions and the majority of democratic supporters mistrust or lack respect for each other so much they are incapable of joining together to defend a democratic arrangement.
In this situation, one party or group, ‘semi-loyal’ to democracy may move to join or call for a dictatorship against other parties, combined with some popular support for ending democracy. Routes to democratic breakdown are predictable paths. This is one future scenario for South Korea.
Scenario #2: Sustainable Democracy
Korea can tackle these growing crises without dictatorship. This involves asking where do we want to go in the future in Korea, and how can we get there? I suggest we can make Korea a more representative, sustainable democratic development for all regions of Korea, so Koreans can ask this question for themselves in the long term. To have a different future, means envisioning how to make the democratic process in Korea more legitimate and efficacious to get you to that more democratic future. This means pointing out major glaring areas where the democratic process already breaks down in Korea. I mention three below.
Second, what about a more positive scenario? What can be done to tackle some of these growing crises above via a more stable, widening democratic legitimacy of democracy instead of the current increasingly self-delegitimating democratic response? This requires a wider base upon which to base policy legitimacy in solving issues mentioned above instead of the ongoing mistrustful political polarization, corruption, and political indecisiveness associated with democratic breakdown. Since Korea requires a greater legitimacy in its democratic policy outputs, this means a greater formalized open debate on policy direction than currently exists to get that legitimacy. This means formal constitutional change.
Three Ingredients for a More Sustainable, Transparent, Legitimate Democracy
I have three formal suggestions of how to get a more representative and respected Korean political elite who are capable of less partisan decisions and can achieve a more trustworthy administration.
#1: Stop Gerrymandering Electoral Districts
The first is to stop electoral gerrymandering. The first debate is over districting; yet, no one has offered how to avoid districting that is partisan gerrymandering.
In late February 2012, sudden district changes throughout Korea for the National Assembly elections seem suspiciously soon before the next scramble for the national election in a few months, on April 11?
Such changes were announced February 27 of course with the claim to be within the letter of the current law. However, on closer look we see selectively administered law. Some districts were altered legally under the current laws about reapportionment--like reducing the shape of the least populous district (Namhae-Hadong). However, the next two most severe districts that should have been reapportioned and reshaped were not. Instead, only the fourth least populous district was changed (Damyang-Gokseong-Gurye).
This raises the specter of just a novel form of gerrymandering. Many accuse parties, left or right, involved with "district reform" as foremost scheming to re-elect or secure more partisan incumbents by "pre-rigging" elections for themselves with creative line drawing, instead of providing a process that builds competitive election choices, equitable representation, and environmentally sound development across the inequalities of Korea.
In other words, endlessly changing reapportionment tends to be captured by incumbent parties. However, the main question concerning elections and districting should be "how can districts create competitive, more representative elections" instead of expecting merely equal numbers of people in a district to create a competitive electoral process. If mere equal numbers in a district is the only criteria of elections, then even 'equal sized' gerrymandered districts are still possible to be uncompetitive, with some parties designing districts to assure 90% of the vote goes for one candidate and only 10% for other candidates, foreordained. Korea lacks a real competitive election by district. Gerrymandering through selective administration of reapportionment laws fails to create a competitive election and merely divides opposition artificially into separate districts or stuffs ballots (residences) of one party's supporters in one district.
It’s time to make more representative, competitive electoral districts. A real electoral reform of districts would draw them in a nonpartisan manner for competitive elections. How can this be done? The public can be assured of this by making stable watersheds as the mandated form of electoral districting. Watersheds are biophysically real lines separating different drainage basins (water catchments). Drainage basins concentrate more than water.
Since much pollution and developmental risk is waterborne, watersheds represent areas where common environmental risk experiences exist, regardless of different people's party ideology. Therefore, watershed election districts should be the durable form of environmental risk feedback into state politics. As such the districts become developmental districts as well, assuring that regional development takes place sustainability with the local people’s approval of that development.
As a publicly desired neutral, nonpartisan way of drawing election boundaries, it has positive effects on party competition by removing gerrymandering to create truly representative parties. Parties should compete to represent the people's interests, not simply win by default because of gerrymandering.
#2: Voting Laws that Reward Parties That Inter-compete for the Same Full Electorate, in Competitive Districts
The second step is for a voting law that makes parties actually compete for the full electorate. This second debate is over voting laws: whether multimember districts (multiple seats per district), majoritarian districts (one seat per district), or proportional representation by districts would provide stability and that representation of the full electorate. Political scientists note however that stability problems exist because of any "pure" static types since each can provide biased incentive structures for competition before elections and for cooperation after them.
As a check against this, in voting law, I offer a compromise by suggesting that "flexible seating" be institutionalized within districts depending on the election's outcome. If a watershed district votes more than 50 percent for one candidate, then one person should be seated to accurately reflect the result of the majority.
If a district votes for only a plurality winner (less than 50 percent), then the top three multiple winners should be seated (with their direct percentage of their vote received as their seat's power) to accurately reflect the result of the majority as well--since voters as a whole in this case really do want multiple people representing them, each of them with less power. This "flexible seating" puts the decision on the number of seats in the hands of the people, each time an election is conducted. Thus it is a form of either majoritarian or proportional apportionment in the hands of the people each time the election is conducted. The candidate's real percentage of voting power is translated more exactly into what percentage of the votes they got from the people in the election. Thus elected levels of seat power are what they personally deserve--no more, no less.
This is achieved by "PRMA" (proportional representation with majoritarian allotment) potential voting rules. Both structural outcomes are options that work as a check and balance on the biases of each. PRMA has incentives for an interparty competition that integrates the full electorate in each election.
Korea can have better democratic legitimacy by making all parties bend to be more representative of the full electorate instead of to collude for their partial electorates. Over the past 10 years, Korea has had ever-lowering voter participation totals and party legitimacy.
In this PRMA framework of voting law, people begin to choose their representatives instead of incumbent distant parties choosing voters via gerrymandered districts and via voting law frameworks where it is currently possible to win by only appealing to a partial electorate without considering the full electorate in the district. Thus the debate on democratic policy can be widened beyond similar styles of elite left or right gatekeeping upon it for greater legitimacy and stability of outcome.
Moreover, PRMA is a guard against the corruption of vote fraud by making all parties concern themselves about monitoring other parties' behaviors. It is dawning on Korean public citizens that the country might suffer from vote fraud attempts in the past or the future. The recent exposed attempts by some fanatical right-wing people show that some are already only ‘semi-loyal’ to democracy, one of Linz’s criteria for democratic breakdown. It shows that some in Korea are already at the stage where they gladly plot to destroy democracy to get their way. They attempted to damage the electronic vote totals for the mayoral elections of Seoul, and that is shocking. Despite their actions, it still resulted in a win for the current independent (now Democratic) mayor of Seoul. What is the connection between PRMA and removing vote fraud? It results in a more competitive election seat outcome, determining if a seat goes majoritarian (50% to a single winner) or goes "PRMA" (3 seats for a plurality winner in their apportioned fractions of seat voting power). This is a real incentive for all legislative parties to uncover vote fraud since specific numerical outcomes in election totals matter and become very important criteria to determine if a singular majority win occurred which is translated to one seat or if a plurality win occurred, which is translated into a plurality of apportioned seats.
#3: Greater Checks and Balances Between Rogue Executives and Rogue Legislatures
Though what about executive positions, and keeping them under checks and balances? A third debate is the relative power between the executive (prime minister/president) branch versus the legislature. I suggest a similar merged solution in a "flexible executive" arrangement based on election outcomes as well.
Let the outcome of voting determine the structure in each election through how the level of trustworthiness of a candidate is reflected accurately in how much power that winner is allowed to have each time.
For instance, if an executive candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, the executive branch goes presidential for that term given the greater real trust shown. If an executive gets a plurality win (less than 50 percent), the winner has less trust, and the public obviously wants that executive on a tighter leash.
This means the executive goes parliamentarian, and the winner is a prime minister that rules in closer association with legislative checks. This provides legislative checks on mere plurality wins in executive power.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), Grand National Party (The GNP was a right-wing party, made defunct in the middle of Lee's term by the ignoring of his own party's complaints about him and how Lee caused the ruling GNP to lose the mid-term elections; the right-wing party was purged of Lee's cronies as it changed its name in 2012 to the "New World/Frontier Party"--though it is now only a party of the dictator Park's daughter's cronies, as a result; President Lee's policies within 100 days catalyzed the largest public opposition protests in Korean history with millions protesting countrywide. These were the largest collective actions against any Korean government since the 1987 turn toward democracy.)
Take President Lee for example. Elected in 2008 with his lower plurality win of 47-48% combined with one of the lowest voter turnouts ever in Korean history, President Lee would have been only a Prime Minister. This different executive outcome would be based on the real lack of full majority trust of him from the start. The National Assembly would have been capable of greater legislative checks upon him and his plans. As even his own party deserted him by 2010 for his undemocratic behavior in ignoring them and for causing the GNP to lose in the Assembly elections, it would have been easier legally to remove him with a right-left coalition in this situation. Otherwise, the mere threat of this vote of no confidence would lead to better executive behavior as well.
(In 2008, soon after election of President Lee, opposition Democratic Party members use a fire hose in a bid to enter an illegally locked and barricaded parliamentary committee room. It was barricaded by Lee's ruling GNP party members that went rogue: after locking and then barricading the room with office furniture, the GNP attempted to conduct an illegal 'final committee vote' without any other parties in attendance, on an international trade bill).
However, multiparty legislatures can have their own hamstrung "gridlock" difficulties and require a check against their power. This check is by allowances for having a stronger executive as president when election outcomes demand it. Thus if Koreans do vote more than 50 percent for a future executive branch candidate, they will get a President.
It's encouragement for any executive to win as much power and legitimacy behind his or her party nationally beforehand, instead of attempting to violently enforce it afterward in a partisan manner of a plurality win. A "flexible executive" solves several debates at once.
These three ideas (of about 60 in my book) are worth tabling to concerned Koreans wishing to avoid repeating mistakes of static, anthropocentric constitutional engineering—and wishing to avoid a repeat of the dictatorship scenario. Stable constitutions and districts can provide for more party incentives to integrate the full electorate, provide for competitive elections instead of equal sized districts prone to gerrymandering, provide for greater legislative and executive counter-balances, and provide for Korean equitable development regionally by integrating the environment as the voice of the people based on what geographic risks they share.
States are eco-centric institutions that manipulate for good or ill variegated environments, and South Korea is a very regionalized polity. This regionality can easily be extended in the event of North/South Korean unification, unlike other plans tabled.
Despite name changes of both left and right wing parties now, skeptical voters (who are the majority) know both parties really seem immune to reforming themselves. Changing a party’s name is a fake solution. All snakes shed their skins to continue living. Despite double name changes, both left and right parties in Korea still have less than 32-35% support in the upcoming election. None of them continue to have any form of great democratic legitimacy.
Given this situation, the bad outcome regardless of who wins the Presidency or the National Assembly is almost predictable. The slide toward unresolved crises will continue this way.
Given this situation, formal changes like the above would demonstrate to the electorate that political elites have serious goals for long-term reform in wider public participation in elections and in development plans, instead of just having plans for crafting the next series of broken promises.
Suggestions I have are nonpartisan, multiparty enhancements with green multiplier effects. When you integrate the full electorate in this fashion, in stable watersheds of environmental risk feedback, you are on the road toward a bioregional state with a representative development policy and a stable multiparty system of legitimate government.
Korea requires more than party changes. It requires wider non-partisan, constitutional engineering changes that make a more stable, sustainable, full electorate possible. Or beware that the Seventh Republic is sadly around the corner.