[INSIGHT]Political Games May Be Just Beginning

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[INSIGHT]Political Games May Be Just Beginning

President Kim Dae-jung resigned as president of the Millennium Democratic Party. That will lead inevitably to an earlier selection of the party's presidential candidate for the December 2002 election, because the president's power to defer candidate selection as long as possible has disappeared. Historical experience teaches us that power rapidly shifts from the incumbent president to the presidential candidate once the ruling party's nominee is selected. No president wants this kind of development.

Before the Oct. 25 by-election defeat, only a few politicians advocated nominating a candidate prior to the local elections scheduled in June 2002. But election setbacks and President Kim's resignation as party president changed the political situation. Though presidential hopefuls have not reached an agreement because they are busy trying to maximize their influence, most of them are apparently seized with the thought of selecting a nominee before the June local elections. Electioneering may begin as soon as early next year.

Since the reintroduction of direct presidential elections in 1987, the dissolution and reformation of political parties because of power struggles and regional coalitions have influenced elections. In the 1987 presidential election, the opposition was divided between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, thus giving the election to the then-ruling party. In the 1992 election, a third candidate, Chung Ju-yung, hurt neither Kim Young-sam or Kim Dae-jung. The then-ruling party won by sweeping the Gyeongsang provinces, which had more voters than the Jeolla provinces, Kim Dae-jung's stronghold. In the 1997 election, the ruling party was divided; Rhee In-je ran even after he was defeated in the election for the party's presidential candidate by Lee Hoi-chang. Kim Dae-jung won by joining forces with Kim Jong-pil.

In the 2002 elections, the winner will be determined by how parties are realigned and how they cut regional deals. In particular, the decisive factor will be appeasing voters in the Gyeongsang provinces and channeling anti-Kim Dae-jung sentiment.

Recent opinion polls show that if the votes were cast today, no MDP presidential hopefuls could defeat Lee Hoi-chang, president of the Grand National Party. That may well change, but the MDP has an uphill battle ahead. The GNP could splinter, but there is little apparent reason for that to happen. Their presidential candidate is almost decided but factions are not spinning off. Indeed, the Millennium Democrats have a narrower base than they did in the 1997 election because of the end of their coalition with the United Liberal Democrats. Some politicians propose that a candidate who comes from Gyeongsang province could be an alternative. The sentiment of natives of the Gyeongsang provinces is in favor of the Grand National Party and its leader, Lee Hoi-chang. But that affection stems from their dislike of the Kim Dae-jung administration, not active support for Mr. Lee. If a strong candidate who hails from Gyeongsang could tap that public sentiment, he could inflame the populist passions of Gyeongsang natives.

That sounds plausible. But there is one precondition: Such a candidate must be seen as having a chance to win the election. In the full Assembly elections of April 2000, Gyeongsang residents showed their determination not to help the MDP, nor did they cast their votes for the Democratic People's Party, which seemed to have no chance to win a significant number of seats. The Grand National Party swept all the Assembly seats in the southeast. A makeshift party cannot become a factor to stir up the Gyeongsang provinces.

If the Millennium Democrats name a candidate hailing from Gyeongsang and then pledge to sever their ties with Kim Dae-jung, and if all forces opposing Mr. Lee unite behind one candidate, then the candidate might demonstrate an explosive influence over the region. In this case, the candidate could expect electoral support from the Jeolla provinces as well. That would be a very menacing scenario for the GNP.

But there is a problem in this scenario. The strong candidates from other provinces do not want to join such a scheme. They call it a political plot to artificially exclude them.

The current front-runner in the ruling party has a track record of dishonoring the results of his party's presidential candidate election. He could well play the same card again next year.

There is one more year to go until the presidential election. There will be many changes in the landscape on the way to the election. Would-be candidates cannot gain the people's support with political tricks.

Only through treading the path of righteousness can they appeal to the people.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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