Have Computers, Will Fight For Reform

Can Web-savvy activists topple the old guard in parliamentary elections?

With just eight weeks until parliamentary elections, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's approval rating hovers around 30%. Several of his close associates are behind bars on corruption charges. There's a continuing nuclear standoff north of the border, and Roh's foreign policy has been roundly criticized by both the Right and the Left. And with 1 in 12 Koreans facing overdue credit-card bills, consumers are in no mood to spend. Sounds like a prescription for defeat for any candidate allied with the President, doesn't it?

On the contrary, Roh's camp is oozing with confidence. That's because in a country where 73% of homes enjoy high-speed Internet access, the battle for National Assembly seats will likely be won or lost in cyberspace -- an arena where Roh and his youthful allies have strong advantages over their older, less wired rivals. The Uri Party, formed last November by ardent Roh supporters pledging radical political reforms, is counting on Korea's Net-savvy thirty- and fortysomethings to fuel an election triumph in the Apr. 15 vote. This is the same group of supporters that helped sweep Roh to power in December, 2002, in a surprising come-from-behind victory. The technology-smart generation largely backed the 57-year-old Roh because of his promise to clean up politics. Now this same group sees the upcoming poll as the best chance to toss out the old guard that dominates Parliament.

It's a tall order. The Uri Party today has just 47 seats in the 273-member National Assembly, compared with 147 for the conservative Grand National Party (GNP). But the young party's adherents have declared war on the corruption endemic in Korean politics -- and they're fighting most fiercely online. Uri members have fostered cyber-communities by building Web pages, sending out e-mails to recruit new members, and soliciting contributions online. "We want to at least double our parliamentary seats," says Uri lawmaker Rhyu Si Min, chairman of its e-party committee.

Uri can expect help from plenty of like-minded activists. On Feb. 3, nearly 300 civic groups ranging from environmentalists to proponents of shareholder rights launched a joint "ClickNClean" movement to oust sleazy politicians from Parliament. Calling their movement a "voter's revolution," they created a Web site where they will list names of politicians they see as corrupt or otherwise "unfit," such as those who cooperated with former military regimes. Anyone on the list who is nominated for the upcoming campaign will be targeted by the groups.

Politicians have reason to take the warning seriously. In a similar action four years ago, 59 of 86 blacklisted candidates were defeated. And this time the campaign may be even more powerful. Unlike in 2000, when activists took to the streets carrying banners with names of dishonest politicians, the focus now will be on the Internet. Thousands of volunteers plan to send e-mails to friends asking them to forward to other acquaintances reports on the candidates' shady dealings. "Such a chain will have a devastating effect," reckons Kim Min Young, a leader at People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the civic groups.

Another tactic will have a more positive focus. In a movement called mulgari -- which translates to "change en masse" -- some 2,000 people from all walks of life plan to select a list of candidates whom they believe deserve their backing. The group will then launch a similar electronic chain-letter campaign to drum up votes. "We are witnessing the explosion of participation by voters in the task of replacing corrupt, old blood with fresh faces," says Chung Dae Hwa, a Sangji University political scientist who heads the mulgari movement.

IDEAS AND STRATEGIES. The e-campaign may already be paying off for Uri. In a January poll by Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC and SBS TV, 30.2% of respondents backed Uri, vs. 20.6% for the GNP and 13% for the Millennium Democratic Party, which most of Uri's members quit last year. Although some of the Uri Party's rise is the result of new corruption probes against the GNP, and many voters remain undecided, the poll showed a dramatic improvement for Uri, which in November was backed by just 15.6% of those polled.

To keep track of the action, Koreans are flocking to politically oriented Web sites. Many of the sites' visitors are younger voters who don't trust Korea's political and media Establishment. Instead, they prefer more liberal Web media upstarts such as seoprise.com, OhmyNews.com, or PRESSian, where they not only read opinions close to their own but also have the opportunity to post responses to the columnists. Seoprise, for instance, is run by journalist Seo Young Seok, who built his reputation as an online columnist for the daily Kookmin Ilbo, one of a half-dozen conservative newspapers that have long lorded over South Korea's media landscape. The paper's management took umbrage at Seo's pro-Roh tilt, and last May Seo quit to devote himself to seoprise. The site has become a major online forum attracting tens of thousands of daily visits from Roh supporters, who swap ideas and help shape strategies for the Uri Party. For instance, a recent comment suggesting Uri back reforms to the university system drew more than 100 responses within hours. "Volunteer workers will massively turn out and make full use of the Net to reshape politics," predicts Seo.

Feeling the pressure, the GNP is now vowing an online campaign of its own. The party has revamped its Web site to appeal to younger voters. One new feature, with the tongue-in-cheek name "Thank You Seoprise," carries rebuttals to columns from Seo's site. "We recognize the importance of appealing to Netizens," says Jung Tae Yun, chairman of the GNP's cyber-committee. "We have decided to run two official sites, as our original one is too formal for younger voters." True, the GNP retains a strong power base among older voters. But that -- even when combined with its new Internet efforts -- may not be enough to counter the Uri Party's tech smarts.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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