[VIEWPOINT]Roh and social change interactThe Millennium Democratic Party primaries are getting more exciting by the day. First, Roh Moo-hyun, a candidate from the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces, took first place in Gwangju, the heartland of Jeolla and an area which usually has no love lost for Gyeongsang folks. Then Rhee In-je swept the votes in Daejeon and South Chungcheong province. Last Sunday, Mr. Roh squeaked through again, taking Gangwon province from the favored Mr. Rhee by seven votes.
The fair-haired boy of the primaries so far is Roh Moo-hyun. Mr. Roh is second in overall votes behind Mr. Rhee but that is far better than anyone had ever expected him to do.
Moreover, he is leading Lee Hoi-chang, the most likely presidential candidate from the opposition Grand National Party, in most recent political popularity polls.
It seems clear that Mr. Roh's popularity is more than just a passing phase. Rather, it has its own dynamics its own causes and effects.
And Mr. Roh is running without significant backing in his own party. He is not an example of a successful party politician, so to understand his success, it is necessary to look at changes taking place in Korean society.
Any society has its mixture of classes, ideologies, generational differences and regional fissures that combine to influence political elections. Until now, the influence of regionalism has been the most prominent characteristic of our elections.
Even Mr. Roh can testify to that, having lost bids for the National Assembly in the 2000 elections, as the candidate of a Jeolla-based party running in Busan, the largest city in the Gyeongsang provinces.
But here he is again, a Gyeongsang candidate who beat out a competitor from Jeolla in a Jeolla-based party's primary election in Gwangju, Jeolla's largest city. That may not be a death knell for regionalism, but it does suggest that its power is weakening.
For most Koreans in the past, voting for a candidate from one's hometown meant economic benefits as well as psychological satisfaction. This is the reason why people have been voting along regional lines for the past 30 years despite the fact that everyone knows it was less than healthy.
But when a candidate who seems to transcend regionalism appears, other divisions in civil society such as class, ideology and generation take over and influence voters. This is not only a theoretical point; it has been observed in the voting history of other countries as well.
This is where the "Roh syndrome" comes in. Mr. Roh can be said to be riding on those divisions that are visible as regionalism fades. This should be clear when looking at the bulk of the voters who support Mr. Roh. They are predominantly low income earners, liberal reformers and those in their 30s.
Mr. Roh could not have appeared at a more fortuitous time, given his strengths. The recent string of government and financial scandals has given the electorate more than sufficient reason to be disgusted with politicians.
But neither the ruling party nor the opposition has been able to present a blueprint of reform that could give the public any reason to change its sour opinion about political animals.
Mr. Roh is benefiting from recent rumors and accusations about the president and the opposition leader and their families, who are said to live luxuriously and take care to arrange their nest eggs and citizenship arrangements abroad.
So in the eyes of ordinary folks, Mr. Roh and his working class image look pretty good. The public's yearning for a change in traditional politics has created a political shift that is symbolized by the "Roh boom."
Taking the broad view, our society has slogged through a tumultuous storm of democratization in the past decade. During those 10 years, most of us have supported democracy and reform, be it as a liberal or as a conservative.
That demand for reform is still here, and the secret to Mr. Roh's success is that people now want definite guarantees that reforms will be made, not just lip service. Mr. Roh's task now is to present alternatives that make him worthy of his image as a reformer.
It would be naive to believe that regionalism will disappear from our primaries or general elections at once. But it is also true that "three Kims politics" ?Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil ?that was based on regionalism is giving way to a new political structure. Regionalism is not only to be blamed on politicians and existing political parties that misuse it, but also on voters who accept it.
Once again, our society is being asked to prove how much it wants true reform.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.
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