[Column] Is Korean democracy really regressing?

Posted on : 2024-07-05 17:10 KST Modified on : 2024-07-05 17:10 KST
Whether politicians accept the rule of law when it comes to special counsel investigations and trials may be the true benchmark for backsliding
The cover of the Democracy Report for 2024 put out by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden. 
The cover of the Democracy Report for 2024 put out by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden. 

By Lee Won-jae, professor at KAIST Graduate School of Culture Technology

Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally party received twice as many votes as Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party in the European Parliament elections held on June 9.
Eager to allay fears of a far-right takeover in France, Macron used his presidential powers to call for a snap general election. In the first round of elections on Sunday, the National Rally came out on top, beating out the leftist coalition and the centrist bloc.
On June 27, the first televised US presidential debate of 2024 took place. The Democratic Party's intention to create a golden cross in the tight polls by highlighting Trump’s problems early on was thwarted as Joe Biden’s performance in the debate revealed serious cognitive problems. As The New Yorker's Evan Osnos put it, “It was like [Biden] missed three turns off the highway and drove right into the wall.”
On Monday, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that granted Trump broad immunity for his actions while in office. In the span of less than seven days, Trump gained two unexpected victories.
The more likely it seems that either Le Pen or Trump will come into power, the more likely it seems that democracy around the world is indeed going backward.
Trump’s victory in 2016 coincided with a global wave of strongmen. All of them claimed to be mini versions of Trump or were friendly to Putin and Xi Jinping. Promises of rapid economic growth and escape from poverty enabled them to beat the odds in the elections and obtain power.
Earlier this year, The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg released its Democracy Report 2024, which claimed that democracy all over the world has been regressing.
Every region except Western Europe saw a decline in its scores on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI), and South Korea was the only country among the top democracies that saw a regression. For those who characterized Yoon’s administration as a prosecutorial dictatorship and claimed that South Korea had become a backward country, the report provided more than credible evidence.
However, despite the high credibility and importance of this report, we do have to address several issues. The V-Dem Institute uses the analyses of about 25 political scientists, journalists, and civic activists per country.
On the other hand, the Economist also conducts a similar survey by using data from public surveys. If we extend the findings of the V-Dem Institute to the last 30 years, the institute tends to score South Korea lower on the LDI index under conservative administrations and higher under more centrist and liberal administrations.
The Economist survey shows that, despite ups and downs, South Korea’s democracy has improved regardless of the administration. While public opinion surveys are not always superior, and the current administration’s attacks on gender equality and curtailment of press freedom are cited as key reasons, the fact that the conflict between Yoon and Choo Mi-ae is cited as an example of Yoon’s tendency to abuse power raises questions about the political bias of the V-Dem Institute’s panel of experts.
Aside from predicting the rise of Le Pen and Trump, V-Dem’s predictions differed from the results of the elections in the first half of 2024 with the world’s strongmen.
India’s Narendra Modi, Poland’s Donald Tusk, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who were all expected to win landslide victories, have all seen their political ambitions significantly curtailed with results that fell far short of their expectations.
China, whose system had been seen as an alternative to Western-style liberal democracy due to its strong COVID-19 restrictions, has since fallen into a deep recession.
Political scientist Adam Przeworski recently proposed a minimalist conception of democracy, according to which elected governments, regardless of what values those elected uphold, are always democratic as long as citizens are free to choose their government according to set procedures.
This has two important implications for South Korea’s current democracy. One is that the guarantee of free elections means that democratic control over authority has been enforced by a majority that actively changes. The fact that the two major parties each won half of the four total nationwide elections since 2020 goes to show that the public has been able to freely and democratically express its opinion. 

The problem lies in the fact that rather than accepting the will of the people as expressed via elections, certain of Korea’s political parties attempt to get the better of the public. By lionizing the president and party leader as figures of absolute power, they are sullying the mandate of representative democracy and turning it into populism. 

It’s also because these parties want to undermine the established rule of law when it comes to special counsel investigations and trials. Words being slung around lately including “politics of betrayal,” and “father of the Democratic Party” imply heroic personalities that are above law and institutions. Such regressive symbolic politics were already well underway when people were saying, “Our ‘In-ie’ can do anything he wants,” about Moon Jae-in. 

When conservatives like Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, reject Trump, they do so because he denied the rule of law in elections. In a place like Korea, where such principles are hard to find, whether democracy regresses will come down to special counsel investigations and trials. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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