[VIEWPOINT]Economy, Character Trump Regionalism

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[VIEWPOINT]Economy, Character Trump Regionalism

President Kim Dae-jung's resignation as leader of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party has triggered a flurry of maneuvering by presidential hopefuls, and the analysis of next year's election campaign has become lively. Most analysts think the best strategy for winning the presidential election is for political parties to regroup along regional lines or form alliance with other parties.

Is that really true? Statistics have proven that Korean voters attach importance to where candidates are from. But they do not consider only the candidates' native roots when they stand in front of a ballot box.

What influences voters in presidential elections varies with time and by country. The United States has a long history of democracy, and the settled two-party politics of conservatives and liberals. In the United States, economic conditions, party affiliation and the character of a candidate are the most important determinants of an election. There, voters prefer a given party because of their own ideological outlook, and voters do not change their ideology easily or quickly. They judge the performance of the party in power mostly by the economic conditions in the nation. In the United States, it is difficult for the party in power to remain in power if the economy is weak, proving that responsible politics has taken root there.

A candidate's character is also important. Some Americans liked Bill Clinton's young and vigorous personality, while some were displeased with his extracurricular activities stemming from that "vigorous" personality.

What significance do those three factors have in Korea? It is true that party counts for something in election results. But unlike in the United States, a party does not represent ideological distinctions. In the times when government intervened strongly in elections, it was most important whether a candidate belonged to the ruling or the opposition party. These days, although election unfairness has been reduced, voters' preferences are still influenced by the region the party represents.

Until the 1997 presidential election, character had not been an important variable. Most voters had to judge the character of candidates based on their televised images blurred by government-controlled media. Ruling or opposition affiliation was more important than character.

Before the last presidential election, economic conditions were advantageous only to the party in power. Our economic growth had been explosive, and inflation and unemployment were almost unknown. The ruling party generally stimulated the economy before elections, giving it another boost in popularity.

But the economy and character emerged as election issues in the 1997 campaign. If it had not been for the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis and a televised debate, it would have been difficult for President Kim to win the election. Many voters rejected the ruling party candidate to punish the administration responsible for the crisis. Mr. Kim, despite his age, looked strong during the two-hour debate, countering propaganda that his election would mean a state funeral during his term.

Character and the economy could be even more important in next year's election. Party affiliation - meaning regional affiliation - will also be important, but those affiliations are already set. Conversely, there are great uncertainties about the economy and about the character of the candidates. Those factors will be significant in party strategies.

If the economy remains sluggish until the end of next year, the ruling party candidate could be harmed. If it improves by the second half of the year, its importance as an election issue may diminish and character will be a more important issue. Especially because parties do not represent ideology but only regional connections, a candidate's personal ideology is an important part of his character. Because market opening will be an important issue in the next president's term, the next president must be seen to be able to make bold decisions and be able to attract public support for his decisions.

Such variables might decide the result of next year's presidential election. Though politicians are busy searching for regional connections, most Koreans already know what things have really important effects on their lives. So while politicians play their political games, busily seeking new regional groupings and alliances, it is important to remember that unlike political deals, the economy and a candidate's character cannot be changed in a day.


The writer is a professor of economics at Ewha Womans University

by Jun Joo-sung

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