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[Column] Populism fails to deliver

Posted December. 13, 2000 13:33,   


"Don't cry for me, Argentina!" is the theme song of the movie ¡°Evita.¡± The song that so fully embodies the tragedy and sorrow of the legendary Eva Peron is beginning to come forth from the lips of the Korean people. What has happened to us? I can't help but feel a sense of loss.

Evita was the nickname given to Eva as the wife of the Argentine president. She was truly loved by the Argentine people. Peron also became a hero to the Argentine people. In 1946, he became the president of Argentina. Those at the margins of society, the powerless and poor including the laborers and farmers, threw tremendous support behind Peron.

After nine years in the seat of power, he lost the presidency. However, as the support of the people continues unabated, he once again came to power in 1973. After a year as president, he died and his wife at the time became the president. In 1976, a coup d'etat pulled her government down. It seemed as though Peron's hold on Argentina finally had come to an end. However, his political legacy tenaciously lives on and even today, holds sway over the nation.

The interesting thing is that the Argentine people's opinion of Peron and his achievements are sharply divided. The majority of the people and especially the lower classes cannot fully wash away the cherished memories of the Peron era. On the other hand, those who are critical of Evita and Peron, especially the literati class, do not hold back their criticisms for their legacy. They accuse them of being the very ruin of Argentina. Curiously, Latin America has seen other such Perons.

The political ideals and models of such leaders and their followers are commonly called populism.

The term populism is not easily translated into Korean. In Korea, populism has been mistakenly called "popular doctrine." Although it sounds as if it stands on the side with the socially powerless, it is more a connived ideology that only on pretext relies on the public.

The political leaders who espouse populism never fail to propose radical reforms. However, the reforms are mostly lip service. Populism serves only to bestow political support of the masses and not much afterward. Peron espoused justice and the "third path." However, he was nothing more than a shell without principles. Political convenience, or in other words, opportunism, is the true color of populism.

Why did so many South Americans fanatically support such populism? It was because the masses also were guilty of opportunism. Amid industrialization, an incredible number of people made their way to the cities. Without money and without work, most of the people lived in fear as they lived hand to mouth. Being in such a precarious situation, they could not afford to contemplate. Rather than supporting sound reform, the people were more concerned with obtaining tangible results quickly. Among such anxious hearts, populism began to sprout.

In the name of reform, the popular offensive began. Who could possibly oppose the ideals of helping the poor and the weak? The policies that raised the minimum wage and built more welfare facilities were common. The middle class also fought for its rights and benefits. Everyone wanted to benefit from prosperity, everyone from every sector. This is the aim of populism.

How could such a magical ¡®win-win strategy¡¯ be possible? It is rather simple: Open the government treasury. Evita provided with love to every hand that was opened to her. She could not bear the sight of those who were hungry or pitiable. How could the people not be moved by such loving kindness? She was an angel. Her popularity soared. However, how could the future pain and suffering be avoided? With such irresponsibility, what future awaited Argentina?

The concern is rising among certain circles that Korea might simply collapse, as well. Meanwhile, the term populism has been spreading throughout our communities as if it were a revelation of death for Korea. The politicians, businessmen and laborers go about as if they had no concern about saving Korea. They are irresponsible and opportunistic. Furthermore, they are only interested in the benefits that are visible and within reach. Is it time for us to sing Evita? We must realize that populism is rights beside us.

Suh Byung-Hoon, Professor of political science at Soongsil University