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Closer to Democracy

December 18, 1987

The key to the outcome of South Korea's presidential election is to be found in what happened to the approximately 63% of the votes that were cast against the winner, Roh Tae Woo, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice party. More than 53% of those votes went to--meaning that they were split between--the main opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung. Because of that division, Roh was able to sweep to victory with what turned out to be a surprisingly large 37% of the vote. The two Kims, after an early promise that only one of them would lead the effort to overturn longtime authoritarian rule, in the end couldn't agree on who that one should be. This failure to unite distressed many Koreans during the campaign. Now it provokes their contempt.

The two Kims, who claimed well in advance of the voting that any Roh victory could only be the product of fraud, are now not surprisingly alleging that sweeping irregularities and abuses occurred. Almost certainly some electoral cheating must have taken place. Significantly, though, the opposition camp has yet to produce any credible proof of widespread or even serious localized fraud. Meanwhile, the hundreds of independent foreign observers who spread out around South Korea to monitor the election are agreed that the processes of casting and counting votes seem in the main to have proceeded without notable interference or dishonesty.

Roh, in short, appears to have come by his victory fairly. That view is bolstered by the size of his plurality. There seems to be no plausible way that ballot-box stuffing could have accounted for Roh's 2-million-vote lead over his nearest rival, if only because cheating on such a massive scale would have been virtually impossible to hide. Convincing evidence may yet emerge that the government party somehow was able to alter the election's outcome. But what must be concluded for now is that Roh, even though the choice of only a minority of voters, was in fact democratically elected.

The march toward democracy in South Korea has thus begun. How smoothly it proceeds from here on depends to a great extent on how responsibly Roh and the two Kims behave in coming days and weeks.

The two Kims could do much to assure democratic progress by accepting the election's result instead of calling for civil disturbances to overthrow it. Roh on his part should move quickly to honor his campaign pledge to invite members of the opposition into his government when he takes office on Feb. 25. Above all, he must act to fulfill his campaign pledge that Koreans in the coming year will at last get the freedoms that they have so long been promised. When they took to the streets last June and when they voted in record numbers this week, Koreans gave proof of their yearning for freedom and a chance to decide their own political destiny. No one can now claim the right to deny that to them--not the government, not the military and not the leaders of the opposition.

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