People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) worked with a coalition of civic organizations to establish criteria by which to identify corrupt politicians and to campaign against those politicians in order to improve citizen involvement and politician responsiveness in South Korea.
In the 1990s, corruption in South Korea was so serious that it was the foremost obstacle hindering the progress of Korean society. Korean political parties had remained unchanged for years and politicians did not represent the people’s interests. Instead, they exclusively pursued their own monopolization of power. Although the people have been under severe economic strain since the national financial crisis in 1997, political corruption had not abated. These corrupt political parties and politicians had no respect for voters and even placed legal hurdles in front of their right to vote. Voters needed to show their power to politicians by making use of their rights.
In order to improve the corrupt political situation, 1,053 civil organizations established a coalition body called Civil Action for the General Election 2000 (CAGE). By PSPD's initiative, the campaign sought the defeat of unqualified politicians in the general election. Common guidelines to define unacceptable candidates were defined through preliminary opinion polls and discussion.
The criteria established by the survey for blacklisting were as follows:
- Corrupt activity;
- Violation of the election law;
- Anti-human rights activity and destruction of democracy and constitutional order;
- Insincerity in law-making and activity against the assembly and electorate;
- Position on reform bills and policies;
- Suspicious behaviors reflecting on the basic qualification for politicians; and
- Failure to do civil duties such as military service and paying taxes.
The most important and delicate issue was the selection of the unqualified candidates politicians based on the above criteria since the opposition and resistance from targeted politicians was very violent. Anticipating this, CAGE analyzed detailed resources such as newspapers relevant to politicians in the period of the past ten years, reports by the National Assembly and juridical reports. They also gathered information from citizens and reports by politicians. The campaign held on-line hearings, conducted an experts’ examination, and held a 100 Voters Committee’s discussion. The 100 Voters Committee was organized to represent the opinions of ordinary citizens, not activists. This was a crucial step in establishing the legitimacy of the blacklist.
After establishing the seven criteria by which a politician could be denounced and determining the politicians who fit those criteria, CAGE examined the lists of potential candidates and requested that political parties refuse the nomination of those who were corrupt. Subsequently, CAGE began a nationwide public campaign to denounce the blacklisted candidates. The organization openly opposed those candidates during the candidate draft and election, working so that they either lost their opportunity to run or the election itself. They created a slogan, “LET’S CHANGE! LET’S CHANGE!” and a cheerful campaign song to appeal to voters. A “red card” symbol was used to identify blacklisted candidates. This new exciting way of campaigning attracted many voters’ strong support. CAGE targeted a total of 86 corrupt candidates. Of these, 59, or 68%, lost in the election. Success was greater in the Seoul metropolitan area where fully 90% of the blacklisted candidates lost.
CAGE’s campaign to expose corrupt politicians and remove them from power had two significant results. First, the campaign inspired voters to realize their power and desire for political change. Citizens were empowered and motivated by the fact that they were able to judge, make a right choice, and change the course of politics. In addition, aggressive voter participation made corrupt politicians hesitate and be aware of voters’ power. This resulted in an increase in politicians’ willingness to innovate, which led to election law reform, the second result of the campaign.
Election laws were partially reformed just before the 2000 general election. Previously, the CAGE campaign itself was illegal. Nevertheless, CAGE representatives were prepared to go to prison in defense of voters’ rights to appropriate representation. The revised law allowed for the public expression of the wish to see particular candidates defeated. It still prohibited street campaigns, so CAGE organized a street campaign to disobey the remaining restrictions. However, the initial changes did open the space for dissent and the expression of voters’ rights.
CAGE organized a blacklist campaign once more in the 2004 general elections. With the experiences, know-how, and accumulated material from its work with CAGE, PSPD launched a program to watch members of National Assembly regularly, not just during election period, and reported the results on its website. This was the first time politicians had been analyzed in this way for Korean society. These campaigns successfully generated social consensus around the belief that people could actually influence political life and its practices.
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One of the major components of CAGE’s tactic is the involvement of the public in every step of the process. CAGE was attentive to voter considerations and careful not to bias the campaign in favor of activist viewpoints. The establishment of the 100 Voters Committee is particularly notable in this respect. During the campaign itself, CAGE continued to appeal to the public using savvy marketing techniques. This skillful inclusion of the voters themselves during the entire blacklist project likely added to its success and resulting voter empowerment. Organizations of all types can keep this element of CAGE’s tactic in mind as they work to create change in various communities all over the world. Involving community members in a project creates agency and increases their interest in the project’s success.