AN EMBARRASSMENT OF ELECTIONS: FROM
SOUTH KOREA TO SRI LANKA
By Tom Plate
March 16, 2003
SINGAPORE -- A few years ago I was
waiting patiently in an anteroom at the Blue House in Seoul for an interview
with the then-President of South Korea when, suddenly, an aide rushed in
with a cup of tea. The President, it seemed, was running a bit late, and the
hot tea was for while I waited. “It’s ginseng,” he said, “it’s good for the
Well, as this was the 10th time at
least during this particular three-day stay in Korea that ginseng brew had
been offered as “good for the manhood,” I couldn’t take it any more. “Mr.
Park,” I said, “my manhood is just fine, thank you very much indeed; but, as
it happens, I am here to interview the President, please, not have sex with
True story: Caught off guard at
first, the aide recovered, laughed loudly, and muttered something like: In
all my time here at the Blue House, you are the first one to say anything
Well, good -- let me now be the
first one to say something else to my Korean friends: Stop it with the
“manhood politics,” stuff your ginseng back where it belongs, and zip it.
You’re supposed to be running the country like adults, not waving your
manhood around like adolescents.
But that’s what’s happening now in
South Korea these days. It’s a mad, mad world of politics, and it’s very sad
to see. The ginseng legislature is in the control of the majority parties
that are fighting popularly elected President. Roh (pronounced “No”), made
the mistake of openly praising his party, in anticipation of legislative
elections next month. The impeachers are technically right: What Roh said
was a violation of the constitutional separation of the presidency from
overt partisanship, and so it was a no-no for Roh. The offense, however, was
not exactly the second coming of Watergate.
But with this absurd impeachment
psychodrama, the world is coming to understand the true nasty fragility of
Korean politics. A military dictatorship until 1987, the Republic of Korea
not only faces a deeply divided Korean peninsula overall in the north with
the heavily armed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but struggles
against its own domestic psychoses in a South Korea that is deeply
geographically divided itself.
A persistently adolescent polity
might paradoxically begin to undermine a more mature economy. Thus the
Korean legislative elections, scheduled for April 15, while emblematic of
democracy, also generate problems for stability.
In fact, much of Asia is undergoing
similar election agonies right now. Another major basket case is undoubtedly
Taiwan, where flamboyant, edgy President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP) is running for his reelection life this Saturday
[March 20] against stolid Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT). The latter is a
religious Buddhist; the former is a secular politician particularly skilled
at taunting Mainland China.
Beijing used to be easier to bait
than an old-fashioned grandmother; but the current Hu Jintao government is
trying its best to play it cool. But should Chen be re-elected, Sweet
Grandma Mainland may turn into ferocious Mother Matrix if the taunting from
Taipei for formal independence continues.
Asian election flu is all over: The
very next day (March 21) Malaysia holds its national parliamentary
elections. Observers expect the ruling party to do well. That would please
Washington. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad supported the U.S.
anti-terror campaign, though not the war in Iraq; but with the crafty
Mahathir gone into retirement, how secular a Muslim state will Malaysia
remain? So, how well the opposition parties do this weekend may portend
Malaysia’s future and a Bush administration nightmare.
Giant India faces a slew of
elections beginning April 20 -- and continuing through May 10. Imagine: some
675 million Indians could potentially go to the computerized polls. The
ruling national Hindu party has run a helpfully non-inflammatory campaign in
a country where Muslims are a minority but a huge one.
Neighboring Sri Lanka still
staggering from the wounds of decades of civil war goes to the polls April
2. This is the third parliamentary election in four years. Widespread
violence marred the last round of elections. With tensions between the
majority Singhalese and minority Tamils heating up again, observers fear the
In Sri Lanka --- as in South Korea
and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent India elections tend to be anything but
a cure-all. They can even make things worse. Is that a reason to suspend
them? Of course not. But any democracy worth the name is a lot more
complicated than simply giving people a vote and watching politicians do
their exploitation number. Okay, so it’s good for their manhood.