[INSIGHT]Jeolla would lose a regional spat"Who on earth supports Rhee In-je?" is the question that I am most frequently asked these days.
"I have never seen a person who actually claims that he or she is a Rhee In-je advocate." I hear many such comments as well.
But looking at any opinion poll, it is obvious that Representative Rhee In-je, a ruling Millennium Democratic Party adviser, is a front-runner. In a mock presidential election matching MDP hopefuls against Lee Hoi-chang, head of the opposition Grand National Party, Mr. Rhee was the one who finished closest to Mr. Lee.
Who are these supporters of Mr. Rhee? Are they voters living in the Chungcheong provinces, Mr. Rhee's home area, or residents of Gyeonggi province, who elected him as their governor for one term from 1995 to 1997? Or, are they Mr. Rhee's fellow high school alumni? The younger generation, maybe? Or, are they admirers of Park Chung-hee, whose image Mr. Rhee tried to copy in the last presidential election campaign?
In a nutshell, Representative Rhee's popularity is the result of regionalism at work. Voters in the North and South Jeolla provinces consider him the second-best choice because there seems to be no Jeolla candidate who might win this year's election. Mr. Rhee, so to speak, is the adopted son of the region.
According to a voter survey by the JoongAng Ilbo in December, Mr. Rhee had the support of 53 percent of Jeolla voters, overwhelming Hahn Hwa-kap and Chung Dong-young, both legitimate sons of Jeolla.
In the mock election mentioned above, 80 percent of Jeolla voters nodded toward Mr. Rhee, a number I would have thought imaginable only for President Kim Dae-jung.
Jeolla voters want to vote for one of their own, but they know that that is a futile hope this time around. They see Mr. Rhee, even though he is not from Jeolla, as someone who can represent their interests well.
They are also aware of the fact that the voters outside of the Jeollas are simply enduring the last year of the Kim Dae-jung administration and waiting for a chance to elect non-Jeolla candidates this time.
For their own benefit, therefore, they put more priority on choosing a candidate who can win the presidential race than on looking for a candidate who hails from the Jeolla region.
Those who asked me about who supports Mr. Rhee were all from the North and South Gyeongsang provinces, Gyeonggi province or from Seoul. Putting that fact together with the overwhelming Jeolla support for Mr. Rhee, I am sad to say that again in this year's presidential election, it is very likely that the ghost of regionalism will be hovering around.
President Kim Dae-jung, as a presidential candidate in 1997, pledged and pledged again that he would resolve the problems of regionalism if he were elected president. But my opinion is that regionalism did not disappear; it was, rather, exacerbated during his presidency.
If President Kim Dae-jung had transformed his words into deeds, this year's election could have been one in which candidates competed over policies, not boasted of where they were from.
It is not a pipe dream to hope that our political parties will compete on the basis of their own political identity. According to a JoongAng Ilbo special report, Korea's political parties, their members, and the general public have formulated their own ideologies and policies.
That is not exactly what political pundits seem to believe when they try to stir up regional sentiment.
In other words, there are in place the basic conditions for parties to compete with each other based on their own policies and forget about where their candidates are from.
Nevertheless, real-life politics are going in the other direction. Politicians are putting their interests before those of the country and are trying to use regionalism to win more votes.
I hope Mr. Rhee does not succumb to the temptation to exploit Jeolla people's jitters. Jeolla voters certainly do not want this election to degenerate into a fight pitting them against the rest of the country.
Mr. Rhee should base his campaign on policies. That is the best way to reward the Jeolla voters for backing him.
The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yu Seung-sam