Saturday, June 05, 2010

Primary Colors

"The test of democracy is freedom of criticism." - David Ben-Gurion

Elections were held this week in Korea, and while democracy is a great thing, I'm glad to see the back of the campaign for one reason alone. I work until 1am and I don't always get to bed until 2am. So I haven't appreciated the election candidates who seem to think it helps their cause to drive up and down or park outside my apartment building at 7.30am in the morning with loudspeakers featuring vacuous patriotic tunes on a two to three bar loop, or speeches from candidates delivered so emotionally one wonders if they are actually pleading for their lives.

Personally, it mystifies me as to how shouting hysterically at passers-by or playing loud annoying music would, in any way, persuade me to vote for a candidate in this country, because it seems to me it would specifically provoke me into not voting for them. Evidently I'm not the only one who is thoroughly fed up with the candidates' antics. Perhaps they are making so much noise to hide the fact that they don't have many policies - well, except for promising people free WiFi.

Annoyingly, recorded speeches are only allowed from 8am, so those candidates who have been waking me up before this are breaking the law and supposedly run the risk of prison terms of up to two years. That's the theory anyway.

My wife floated the idea of actually complaining to the police, but I didn't think trying to get a candidate jailed was exactly the kind of introduction to Korean politics I wished to have as a foreigner. Foreigners are allowed to vote – if they've been resident long enough which I haven't – but they are 'prohibited from engaging in campaigning', which seems like something of a paradox.

So the streets then are thick with Korea's ubiquitous Bongo trucks converted for political campaigning, coupled with large numbers of election campaigners which makes you marvel at the spirit of campaign volunteerism in this country... until you realise it's actually a popular form of paid part-time employment. Two trucks were almost parked in close proximity to my apartment building on a near permanent basis, which was not a lot of fun after the first couple of days.

I chanced upon an election bongo parked outside an apartment block in a relatively quiet backwater of our neighbourhood. There was nobody to be seen, but it didn't stop the candidate delivering an impassioned speech at full volume to... well, just me actually.

But this is how it's done, and it's sometimes such an efficient system that they don't even bother taking the candidate off the bongo before moving on to the next location. Yes, I've seen candidates bravely hanging on to their lecterns with their token supporters behind them while the vehicle they are standing on has driven down the bumpy highway outside our apartment at around 40mph. It's all rather absurd, but with bribery and vote-buying possibly down in this election (depending on who you believe) – this appears to be one of the best ways candidates can think up to engage people, although one suspects if this is indeed the best idea they have, they probably won't make very good politicians.

I shouldn't complain too much about the noise though, because at least there are elections, even if noise seems to be the main outcome rather than serious debate. And the candidates can't necessarily be completely blamed for the low-tech and apparently policy free approach, since the National Election Commission curiously banned political parties from engaging in public debates over 'hot election issues' (aka Government policies), in a move which seems straight out of the Hugo Chavez playbook. So candidates have numbers, colours and perceived political positions they're not necessarily at liberty to discuss in public. What can people vote for, and how can politicians differentiate themselves in this kind of environment?

There has been innovation though. Twitter is a rapidly growing phenomenon in Korea. and some candidates have used Twitter heavily. But perhaps I shouldn't be so willing to see candidate leave behind the low-tech Bongo-truck approach; I made the mistake of following a couple of candidates on Twitter who, in an act of presumed ignorance or desperation, followed me. I soon learned that their determination to annoy the public on the streets extended into the online world, and I was deluged with tweets every few minutes.

And this is how the election results were shown on TV - with candidates raising their fists. Korea fighting! Candidates fighting! Or something like that.

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