Young politicians seeking change, but facing hurdles are as old as politics

SEOUL – Jung Seong-hoon, 22, shares the frustration of young Koreans looking at a bleak future: Jobs are scarce, rent is high, and debt is high. So last month, he ran for his local city legislature and won.

Mr. Jung epitomizes the dwindling bloodline of young people entering South Korean politics after lawmakers this year lowered the minimum age limit for political posts to 18 from 25. That has resulted in a reduced number of people entering politics. record people under the age of 40 participating. local elections in June – 416 candidates, up from 238 in 2018. Of the 4,131 who won their race, 11 were under the age of 24, including the youngest election winner in the calendar. history of the country, a 19-year-old man.

But even before their terms began on Friday, they ran into problems as old as politics. They say they face a political ecosystem dominated by politicians in their 50s and 60s who are out of touch, a high standard for fundraising and a network of party officials who are not. obviously, the people they favor must try to find opportunities.

They have to overcome strict cultural barriers (one’s social standing is largely determined by one’s age) and deal with an older constituency who sometimes considers them “inexperienced.” and “credulous,” some complain.

Lee Ja-hyung, 23, who was elected to the council in Gyeonggi province, near Seoul, said: “There is an expectation that young people will contribute to the betterment of the world, but a lot of people present expressed concern about our youth. “They are concerned that our judgment is not fully developed and that we may be too easily swayed by those around us.”

That makes it harder for young people hoping to win the nomination of a major political party, which often requires them to have a personal acquaintance with party officials. In the conservative People’s Power Party, local party council chairmen hold the power to nominate a candidate. In the Liberal Democratic Party, candidates must not only be nominated, but must also win primaries in order to stand for office.

Noh Woong-rae, 64, a member of the National Assembly, said: “There is a fixed idea that politics is for adults, following a long-standing Confucian culture.

The age limit for national political candidates is 25 in many Asian countries, including Japan, India, Philippines and Thailand. In Hong Kong and Singapore, the limit is 21, and in Taiwan, it is 23. In the United States, a person must be 30 years of age or older to become a senator and 25 years or older to become a representative. Only a few teenagers are elected to the US state legislature or ran for a seat in City Council. Several countries, including Germanyallows 18-year-olds to run for office in the national legislature.

In South Korea, Mr. Noh is among lawmakers campaigning to reduce the minimum age limit for candidates, arguing that the candidate age must match the voting age, which has been 20 since 2005. 1960. Others wanted to remove the age restriction altogether.

The law change movement is tied to the student-led democracy protests of 1987. Activists say they want to dispel the notion that the elite should be involved in politics, an idea that dates back to the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.

This effort has been successful in stages: The voting age was lowered to 19 in 2005. In 2019, Congress passed lowering it again, to 18. Then, this year, the lawmakers The law has lowered the age limit for candidates.

“It’s nice to have some experience or knowledge, but I don’t think politics necessarily requires a great degree of it,” said Park Joo-min, 48, another congressman. .

Despite the change, Mr. Jung, 22, was elected to the city council of Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, saying that talking to a party official to try for the nomination “felt like banging my head against a wall”. (He campaigned on a promise to help strengthen the city’s transportation infrastructure.)

Fundraising has also been particularly difficult, with some candidates saying they had to give out around 20 million Korean won (about $15,400) to run successful campaigns.

22-year-old Lee Yechan, who was elected to the Yeongdeungpo-gu district council in Seoul, said that when it comes to campaign funding, “I used up all my savings from an internship that I had. did for a year and from work. student hours. I even took out a loan – high interest rates.”

Drawn into politics by a mixture of idealism and the belief that they can help steer the country in a better direction, some find themselves facing trade-offs.

Before taking office, Mr. Jung said: “Although I feel responsible for solving youth problems, I do not intend to focus on them. I think raising youth issues just because I’m young will lead to hostility.”

For 19-year-old Cheon Seung-ah, the youngest politician to be elected, victory came at a heavy price. She was nominated by the chairman of her local party council, 52-year-old Kim Hyun-ah, amid a push to attract more young women to join the People’s Power Party. (Many members have been accused amplify anti-feminist slogans.)

In an interview, Ms. Cheon described her hopes of expanding the city’s children’s enrichment programs and improving the city’s transportation system. Then, after she won, members of her party’s council, including several women vying for the nomination to her seat, launched an attack. According to a complaint signed by six board members, she claimed in her resume a nonexistent title on the council’s young adult committee.

The lawsuit was accepted by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.

Prosecutors are also investigating dozens of other winners from the June election. Attacks often occur against candidates nominated by local party council chairmen who played a key role in their electoral victory, such as Ms. Cheon. It is easy to challenge their legitimacy as their victory is seen as less democratic. But very few of those attacks have been officially accepted as a legal claim.

Ms. Cheon denied the claim, saying, “The hardest part is the damage the attacks have done to my mental health.”

Ms Kim has also dismissed the suggestion that there is anything unsavory about her title of protector. Under party rules, Kim said, she has the unique privilege of appointing people to the council and giving them titles. “I am under no obligation to ask the members of the council to authorize or inform them,” she said.

One of Ms. Cheon’s challengers, Lee Kang-hwan, the council’s vice chairman, said in an interview that he gave up when he learned that she was the nominee. He also said that he had hoped she would step down.

On Friday, Ms. Cheon began her term as Goyang’s youngest female congressman. On Monday, prosecutors assigned a police department to investigate her case.

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