Sunday, December 16, 2007

Elections a Go-Go

It's almost election day in Korea. You would hardly be able to tell if you lived here as there are a number of election rules in place. In fact I didn't even realize an election was coming up until I walked to work last Monday and was confronted by groups of organized volunteers on the street corners bowing, waving and flashing peace signs to passing cars. Ah, I thought, there must be an election soon.

Koreans get elections. There was a law passed a few years ago to prevent any pre-campaign marketing of politicians. No one is allowed to do any kind of promotion until exactly eleven days before the election. On the eleventh day before the election the streets suddenly swarm with pent up politicians promoting themselves. But before those eleven days come around you would hardly know there was going to be an election at all.

I remember once talking to a mother of one of my students. We were driving about in the election day press one day and she was upset by it. I asked her why.

"It's not it used to be. When I was in school I was part of the demo. I was in Gwangju." That is a huge statement. In May of 1980 191 Korean students were killed in the Gwangju demonstrations against the regime. It was a battle for political freedom, for democracy, for real elections. Students were willing to die to have the right to vote. It's just not like that anymore. I appreciated the mother's anger at the boiled down political process.

There are not great demonstrations now during the elections. Instead you have the look-alikes hired to stand on street corners with groups of hajuma's in blaze orange hunting jackets and white gloves. The look alikes wave, and smile, and flash peace signs whiles the hajumas bow respectfully to passing cars. This is democracy in Korea.

It's a strange thing. I walked through downtown Daegu this weekend and stumbled quiet accidentally across an election show. I'm not sure which politician it was but I think he is number three on the ballot. His camp had parked a huge sound truck at the intersection and the volunteers, who must have been practicing for months, preformed boy band style dance routines. In front of the group was a man in an expensive suit with a mike, older than the rest of the volunteers; the look alike hired for this promotion. He danced and jumped along with the rest of the troupe as they want through their routine. It was hysterically funny to watch a middle age balding Korean jump through this teenage dance routine while trying not to pass out from the exertion.

When the dance was finished he would catch his breath and start speaking into the loud speaker, promoting whatever platform it is that number three is running on. He shouts loudly and people stand around waiting for the next dance number. It's all about entertainment. During the next routine a drunk stumbles into the mix with the volunteers and starts going through the dance motions haphazardly bumping into the volunteers. The crowd goes wild.

Anyone his really wants to get elected here will go the extra mile. Having a dance troupe perform is all well and good, even the hajumas bowing to traffic is a good ploy; but if you really want to get elected you need to hire sexy dancing girls. Korea has a number of girls for hire who's job is to stand around in skimpy outfits and when the music is right to dance varying routines. During the pause between songs the girls will talk briefly about whatever product being prompted. Dancing girls are hired for the opening of new business, dancing girls perform at special events, you can hire dancing girls for weddings, and you bet your ass if you want to win an election you hire dancing girls.

For the politicians, though, maximum exposure is the key. So the hired dancing girls are put on the backs of trucks and are driven through the streets, standing around when the truck is moving, talking to the crowd, pushing the agenda. When the truck is still they break into their special routines to inspire the voters to head to the polls on election day. Any politician worth his salt makes sure to hire some dancing girls.

There is a strangeness to it when you think about it. In the US the election coverage started barely a month past January last year. It's been a year of coverage with no end in sight and the first preliminary polls won't happen for another month yet. I get so tired of US election coverage. Here we get eleven days and in the end it's foregone conclusion. On the radio last night the Korean announcer said that polls show the top candidate for president had a 47% lead. The current president, Roh Mo-hyun is already in concession talks to help create a smooth transition. Our newly elected leader isn't even elected and already he has been conceded too.

Lee Myung-bak, who is the leader of the Grand National Party and very likely the next president is a Giuliani type figure. The former mayor of Seoul, hard line conservative and embroiled in numerous scandals is set to take the next seat. Among his many policy changes are taking a harder line on North Korea. What will that mean for us? Only time will tell.

In the meantime it's only two more days till the election. The dancing girls, who at the moment are freezing their pretty little bottoms off, are greatly pleased.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Sounds like the Korean political process, or at least the street campaigning part, is a lot more entertaining the what we suffer through in the States. Especially the dancing girls portion. Though, I wouldn't mind seeing some of the presidential candidates performing some street dance routines to earn their nickles :)
Happy Holidays!