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Invitation to Upheaval?

December 15, 1987

Each of the major candidates in South Korea's presidential election is claiming to have the public support needed to win Wednesday's scheduled voting, but less partisan observers agree that the race is in fact too close to call. What this ominously suggests is that the winner, selected from among three major and two minor candidates, almost certainly will prove to be the choice of only a distinct minority of the electorate, perhaps no more than 35%. A victor whose demonstrated base of support is that narrow and whose mandate appears that uncertain can expect to see his legitimacy and authority quickly come under fire.

The groundwork for possibly violent challenges has already been laid. The two main opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and most especially Kim Dae Jung, have been alleging as a matter of course that a victory by the ruling party's Roh Tae Woo could result only from massive vote fraud. Kim Dae Jung has gone further, warning that he would lead his followers into the streets to try to prevent Roh from claiming the fruits of victory. Roh, meanwhile, has strongly hinted that the election of either of the Kims, particularly the more populist Kim Dae Jung, might well provoke yet another military coup.

These preemptive threats deserve to be taken seriously. Korea is not noted for a highly developed tradition of political compromise and reconciliation; what elsewhere are regarded as essential lubricants of democracy are still seen by most Korean politicians as shameful moral failings. The Korean public on its part seems torn between its disgust with a quarter-century of authoritarian rule and its deep yearning to maintain order and stability. South Korea's latest chance at democracy would obviously be greatly strengthened if its first direct presidential election in 16 years produced an unambiguous result. What is shaping up instead is an election whose inconclusiveness seems likely to intensify bitterness, deepen disappointment and perhaps even encourage upheaval.

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