SEOUL — You don’t have to consult opinion polls to understand that in general terms South Koreans are not happy with their government. It is enough to occasionally read editorials or to engage in political discussions with Korean friends, colleagues and neighbors. Then you detect a very basic disenchantment with all those who govern — or pretend to govern.
For obvious reasons the national media focus on the big national events, including the major scandals, and the verbal — and sometimes physical — clashes between the government camp and the opposition. The people are appalled to see how effectively the parties are immobilizing themselves. The reputation of the local governments, with few exceptions, is also very poor. Low voter turnouts in local elections are but one indicator of a crisis of local autonomy; another is the widespread popular contempt for elected local public officials. Obviously, South Korean politicians are not meeting the people’s expectations.
Political reform, and also the reform of local politics in the sense of more local democracy, has been on the very top of the agenda of the Kim Dae Jung government since it took power nearly three years ago. Interestingly, the central government is now criticizing the local authorities for what it says is unsatisfactory performance. “We are facing many problems from our local authority system,” Choi In Kee, the minister of government administration and home affairs, told me at a recent meeting.
The minister’s critique is in tune with the media, which more recently has been full of dismal reports regarding local governments. Many stories deal with a lack of financial discipline on the side of the local authorities, accusing them of being spendthrifts.
At the heart of the problem of South Korean local government lies a finance crisis. It is no exaggeration to say that local finances are in disarray.
If you ask local officials for the reasons, they will most certainly blame the central government in Seoul for handing down too little subsidies and limiting the base of local taxation. If you discuss this issue with people in Seoul, they point their fingers at the proven cases of carelessness with scare financial resources by the local authorities.
Here is another example of the discrepancy of viewpoints regarding the state of local autonomy in South Korea: While the central government proudly professes that it has handed down to the local authorities no less than 183 functions, other observers call this window dressing, claiming that genuine political decentralization is yet to come. Said one specialist at a recent conference on local government innovation in Seoul, “Certainly, we have elected mayors. But at the same time, the central government decides what kind of car the mayor may drive and what size the garbage bags should be.”
Meanwhile the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs is preparing drastic measures to cope with what it sees as a structural crisis in local government. A while ago, Choi announced that he is considering the introduction of the so-called recall system for local government officials. “The government is studying the recall system to permit the residents to vote and decide whether mayors and governors are implementing their community business in a democratic and transparent manner,” the minister was quoted in the press.
In practical terms, this means that Seoul is considering the introduction of legal provisions that allow local citizens to vote out of office those local officials they find either incompetent or corrupt. It comes as no surprise that many local government officials are up in arms. They strongly reject these plans, which some term as yet another scheme to re-centralize political and administrative authority.
The political instrument of recalling local government officials has been practiced for many years in the United States and in Germany. It is a very democratic instrument as it enables the local community to rid itself of incompetent local leaders prior to the end of their official terms. Like referendums, recalls provide a dose of direct democracy to representative and indirect political systems.
From a liberal point of view, referendums and local recalls are excellent tools to increase citizens’ participation in local government. But regarding the South Korean case, I have reservations whether the time is ripe for this fundamental innovation. Unlike the two countries mentioned above, local self-government has only a very short tradition in this part of the world. The people are just getting acquainted with the rules of representative local government, and much space remains for improvement in the “traditional” system of checks and balances.
My guess is also that it would not be easy to win the hearts and minds of the citizens for yet another reform. Worse, this reform — much like most other reforms in this country — would be installed from the top down, and not be the result of a political process originating at the grass roots.
“In Korea we have a real discrepancy between our real and our nominal life,” says a South Korean scholar. “We need more time to internalize the system of representative democracy, before we move on to new political experiments,” he added.
Building democracy is more complex than constructing bridges or factories. Considering the country’s long authoritarian past, it will take time — definitely more time than one presidential term — to educate the people about the importance of active participation in representative politics. Introducing the recall system should stand at the end of this process rather than at the beginning, where we find ourselves today.
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