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Top-Down Democracy in South Korea, Erik Mobrand

Reviewed by Myungji Yang


This book deals with one of the most pressing issues in South Korean politics—why, despite an active civil society and vibrant civic activism, political elites have remained unresponsive to and insulated from the public. In what Erik Mobrand refers to as a top-down democracy, political parties have not responded to political demands from below and have not effectively developed institutional channels for political representation. Mobrand argues that political elites manipulated electoral arenas as a means of maintaining the status quo while effectively blocking possible challengers, particularly progressive parties, through rigid legal regulation of parties and campaigning. Highlighting the long-enduring political institutions that originated with the founding of the Republic of Korea and the Park Chung Hee regime, Top-Down Democracy in South Korea challenges existing scholarship on Korean democratization, which mainly focuses on popular mobilization and social movements. In doing so, it clearly demonstrates how oligarchic and exclusionary political parties have been shaped over time and thus extends our understanding of the gaps and tensions between institutionalized politics and street activism in South Korea.

To understand the architecture of contemporary South Korean democracy, Mobrand pays attention to the “1963 system,” in which formal, competitive elections were held under the name of liberal democracy, but regulations governing party registration, campaigning, and political assembly were carefully designed in such a way as to keep certain forces out of contention. The 1963 system and its electoral infrastructure persisted even after the democratic transition in 1987. In the process of revising the constitution in 1987, the ruling and opposition parties agreed on restrictive election laws because both had an interest in limiting the electoral power of new progressive forces. Despite the attempts of civic organizations and reformist politicians, the old order was not replaced by a more open, participatory political system. Emphasizing the importance of the historical legacies and underlying political structures that continue to shape the post-transition period, Mobrand provides insights on the challenges and difficulties of democratization that attempts to build institutions and norms based on inherited structures.

Top-Down Democracy in South Korea is a timely book, one that helps us understand the current crisis of democratic regimes. The current global political landscape, characterized by the rise of right-wing populist leaders and extremist illiberal politics, signals a growth in skepticism toward the effectiveness and legitimacy of democratic institutions. Antipluralistic and populist backlash in advanced democracies partly arises from frustrations with and resentment of mainstream political parties that seem unable to address public concerns and popular demands. While South Korea does not suffer from movements that threaten the democratic fabric as in other countries, the lack of representation in institutionalized politics has indeed been the outcome of unresponsive political parties and inattentive political elites who have long been empowered to abuse democratic institutions. It will be interesting to see whether the ongoing discussion of election reform in the South Korean legislature actually produces change in the existing political order.

Mobrand’s book encourages us to think about Korean politics from a global and historical perspective. Those who are interested in Korean politics, democratization, political parties and electoral systems, and historical institutionalism will find it truly interesting and valuable.


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