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Civic Movement Put to Test
Each party has nearly finished nominating its candidates for the National Assembly in preparation for the April 11 general elections. One of the important points to take note in the run-up to the elections is civil society groups' participation in politics. Individual dissidents and civic activists have participated in politics in the past. In fact, the current leader of the main opposition party used to be a civic activist herself. But civil society organizations turning themselves into political groups, some playing a crucial role in uniting progressive parties, are a totally new phenomenon.
The leader of a civic group won the Seoul mayoral election last year, butit remains to be seen how the civil society`s mass participation in politics will affect the parliamentary elections. To be sure, though not known widely, there is lively debate going on inside the civic groups themselves about the possible extent of their influence. There are, of course, pros and cons, and realists and idealists, regarding the political participation of civil society.
Many people believe the state, the market, and the civic society are clearly divided. But this generalization is nothing but a schematic categorization. In fact, they overlap, conflict, or cooperate with each other. Many civil society groups have been deeply involved in issues of real politics, demonstrating significant influence. They have played a role in making up for democratic deficiencies that have been incurred because party politics and journalism failed to play their proper roles. And it cannot be ignored that some elite members of the judicial circles, academia, the press, and the civic society have traditionally been absorbed into the political arena. Metaphorically speaking, as there are non-banking financial institutions besides banks in financial circles, there are non-party organizations besides political parties in the political arena.
This is a characteristic of Korean politics and civil society, a phenomenon hard to imagine in neighboring Japan, not to mention in most Western countries. Foreign researchers find it unfamiliar. The phenomenon is hard to explain with normative theories imported from overseas. Critics of civic engagement in politics include both progressives and conservatives. We need to look squarely at the fact that most critics base their views on the principle that civil society movements should be separated from politics. But the historical roots of Korean civic movements cannot be denied simply because they do not conform to widespread principles. Rather, it is desirable to admit the civil society`s participation in politics as an objective reality and seek ways to maintain the respective characteristics of political and civic societies.
To this end, we should make it a rule to evaluate politics and civic movements under different standards of legitimacy. As is well known, politics functions on the principle of official and legal representation. Politicians who are elected through democratic procedures engage in activities and make decisions as representatives with authority delegated by the people. Once elected, they should coordinate matters of public interest and achieve social integration as representatives of the entire electorate as well as their supporters.
But civic movements are different. They lack official representation endowed through elections. Therefore, civic movements may be evaluated based on their intrinsic value, transparency of activities and responsibility to supporters. From this point of view, civic participation in politics itself poses no problem. Problems occur only when different standards of legitimacy between the political and civic societies are confused. It is natural that unlike politicians, civic activists should focus on their personal values. In this regard, they should speak and act with more solid ethical convictions than now.
But once they decide to enter politics, civic activists need to accept quite different principles and ethical responsibilities of the public sector. While keeping the values of civic movement, they must be prepared to seek compromises sometimes and play Machiavellian roles at other times. Basically, they should be ready to accept political evaluation while they engage in politics. It is neither good nor bad for civic activists to engage in politics. They just should bear in mind that different standards of legitimacy are applied to different spheres of activity. Then, politics can be rejuvenated and civic movements can find their proper place.