What are we to make of political parties and their proliferation in Korea, and indeed in the United States? In the U.S., the issue is not fringe groups, for no matter how focused their agendas may be (vegetarian, for example), they are marginal by definition. But there are historical and contemporary third forces that resonate with a significant segment of the body politic, even if only a small minority. In the U.S., their existence indicates some significant political discontent among important elements of the population with some policy issues. We are likely to have three national parties in the forthcoming U.S. elections in November, plus some statistically insignificant groups and a couple of locally important organizations. Money oodles of it -- seem to be the grease of the American electoral machines.
In Korea, the proliferation phenomenon is based on different criteria. Policy issues will not be paramount. It now seems likely there will be five parties, the three usual suspects the Millennium Democratic Party of Kim Dae-jung, the United Liberal Democrats of Kim Jong-pil, the Grand National Party of Lee Hoi Chang and the new splinter group, the Democratic People's Party, headed by Cho Soon, as well as the Labor Party. It is going to be an exciting and chaotic few weeks in Korea, and the election outcome will be important to the future of the country over the next decade.
Are there really any comparisons that might be drawn between the Korean and American experiences that would help us understand both processes and provide some focus to such seeming disparate experiences? Perhaps there are. Electoral politics in Korea and the U.S. (and other societies as well), put simply, are generally about a volatile mixture of four elements: programs or platforms; political institutions and their continuity; personality and personal ambitions; and geography. Other societies add to this mix such categories as class, caste, race, religion and ethnicity, and some of the above continue to affect American politics. The relative weights of each of these elements change by country, culture, and time. Understanding how they are balanced provides clues to determining social dynamics, even if it only marginally helpful in determining who will win elections. For that, it is better to consult a fortuneteller, which I feel sure many politicians have done.
In the United States, personal ambition has been important and even necessary. They say that one must have fire in the belly to want to be president or this commitment is not conveyed to voters. President Clinton has had it from childhood, so people say, and Senator McCain for a couple of decades. However important, it is probably only a minority influence compared to other factors. More significant is the personal impression of a candidate what kind of trust, empathy, and integrity does the candidate convey; it is more difficult to determine what integrity the person really has.
Political institutions are important as well, for there is party continuity in the two major parties, and whoever vies for leadership at any level has to be seen as supporting the party and its future even though there may be differences over policies. Is Senator McCain trying to capture the Republican Party from certain segments of that establishment, as some claim? That is really not as important as the continuity of the Party itself and its general philosophy.
Geography is also a factor a candidate is supposed to be able to win his or her …