SEOUL: Being in the capital of South Korea for a conference on Korean Unification held in the National Assembly building was an experience which showed how far this country, small in territory but huge in economic success, has come in the maturity of its democracy. More than two million citizens congregated around the National Assembly, holding candles and singing songs, calling for President Park Geun-hye to resign forthwith. Elected on 25 February 2013, Park is the eleventh President of the Republic of Korea, and led her Saenuri Party to a comfortable plurality in the National Assembly. However, a little over three years later, the overwhelming majority of the population have had enough of her, and have taken to the streets to nudge a reluctant Parliament to remove her from office. Thus far, despite weeks of massive agitations against Park, there has not been a single arrest by the many police personnel placed around the National Assembly. The sympathies of those in uniform were with the protestors. And within the crowds, there was a festival atmosphere. Songs were sung, little children brought along “to watch history being made”, and there is satisfaction that Parliament—including the ruling party—will hold impeachment hearings. Judging by the mood of the voters, most of whom had backed President Park just three years ago, it seems clear that her days in office are numbered. President Park’s fate is a cautionary tale for democratically elected leaders everywhere of the speed with which public opinion can change, and how pressure from large numbers of citizens could force legislators to take action against an unpopular, albeit elected, leader.
What explains the collapse in the political fortunes of the daughter of the dictator, who between 1963 and 1979 made South Korea a global powerhouse of enterprise? When President Park Chung-hee’s wife died, it was only daughter Geun-hye who fulfilled several of the roles of the First Lady. Perhaps the five years of experience in the Blue House as the right hand of her autocratic father gave the current President of South Korea a distorted picture of the role of an elected leader.
After all, voters do not want to see their elected leader morph into a monarch, ruling in a manner as absolute as a dictator. In the case of President Park, there was certainly the question of her ties to an intimate female friend and the manner in which this individual used her sentimental hold over the President to get monetary and other favours from big business interests. However, this would not have gained the traction it did but for the fact that Park Geun-hye began to behave much in the manner of her father, who of course was a military dictator with zero popular mandate. Those who know her say that she became aloof, so much so that she even refused to have lunch with others while on tour, eating alone in her room in the manner of a royal potentate. Park would fix appointments and cancel them at the last minute, even while those who had come from long distances to see her were kept waiting in the Blue House for hours.
The President apparently saw legislators as lowlife, because she seldom found the time to meet them individually, preferring to leave that task to subordinates. These were themselves rude to both the public as well as to elected representatives, and spurned any request with contempt. The consequence of such an attitude is that several ruling party legislators joined with the Opposition to ensure her impeachment.
Members of President Park’s party say that soon after she took office nearly three years ago, the lady became aloof and disconnected from both the people as well as the party rank and file. She would meet only the seniormost leaders of the party, and that too not for the purpose of getting their views, but to give orders that she expected to be followed without question. Soon the ruling party headquarters became a venue where the ordinary cadre was absent and only those in big cars who were billionaires were welcomed. Geun-hye Park lost all touch with the people of her country. She spent her time mostly in the company of a few officials, who were too afraid to challenge her and who nodded their heads at everything she said. Apart from high officials, the only other regular visitors were big business representatives. Several of them had been assisted early in their careers by Park Geun-hye’s father, the late President Chung-hee Park, and the new President treated them as her subordinates, ordering them to appointment those she favoured and implement measures demanded by her or her close friends. President Park even sought to silence dissent by punitive measures against some individuals who disagreed with her. Laws were tightened, especially concerning freedom of the internet, which made South Korea a democracy where there were almost as many curbs on the internet as in authoritarian states.
At the same time, those close to Park were given privileged treatment, including admitting undeserving children in universities and in companies. Such favouritism angered young South Koreans and drove hundreds of thousands of them to the streets of Seoul to demand the resignation of the President. Her own team has been ineffective, largely because the President chose people whom she liked rather than those who were competent in the tasks assigned to them. She ensured a collection of favourites around her who were incapable of functioning in a manner that gained the public trust. The impending downfall of President Park has been caused by her misinterpretation of the mandate of the people as a licence to rule as she wished rather than the way people expected her to. She ought to have chosen competent and honest people rather than vapid flatterers, and should not have confined her contact to greedy individuals out to make money through closeness to her. Park should have kept in daily touch with the common people and with independent minds rather than only with fawning officials and avaricious billionaires. The fate of Park Geun-hye shows what happened when a democratically elected leader deluded herself that she had been crowned an absolute monarch.