[SCRIVENER]Mystery, mergers fill election days

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[SCRIVENER]Mystery, mergers fill election days

As a foreigner, you know that you've been in Korea too long when you find yourself reminiscing about more than one presidential election.

This is my fourth. So, dear reader, prepare to be bored.

Each election has, of course, been different, but this one is doubly so in that Kims Dae-jung, Jong-pil and Young-sam are not involved, which somehow doesn't make it a real presidential race for me. I just can't believe that someone else is going to be the next main man tonight.

My first election was 1987. Now that was an election to remember. It allowed the democratic vote that Koreans had waited 5,000 years for. The events that led the dictator Chun Doo-hwan to allow it had been so giddy that you had to pinch yourself to feel it was real.

Mr. Chun had been president since 1981, when he had himself "elected" by an electoral college, a kind of -- to use a topical phrase -- jury of his peers. He promised to step down at the end of his 7-year term, but after 4,994 years of tyrants, no Korean believed him. Mr. Chun, though, was a man of his word and had a plan. He would nominate his best friend, Roh Tae-woo. Before the election, people protested so strenuously against the electoral college system that he had to agree to a direct popular vote.

Ironically, Mr. Roh won, and became the first president in Korean history to be elected in a free and fair democratic vote.

There are many similarities between that election and today's. For example, you still have a three-week official campaign after months of unofficial campaigning. Candidates still start their speeches with, "When I become president, I will ------ ." The candidates are, for some bizarre reason, still numbered, which is good for "Number One" but rough for "Number Four" (sa also means "death" in Chinese). The subliminal message in this numerical list for the less-than-astute voter is: Top Man, Runner-up, 2d Runner-up, Death, Loser, Loser, Loser.

Newspapers are not allowed to endorse candidates, which used to be fair because media were vulnerable to government pressure. Now, it's the other way around.

The '87 election was conducted by rallies at which some people had the unpleasant habit of throwing stones. Polling then was in its infancy. The government party and the intelligence agency hired pollsters so they could feel the pulse of the electorate, but the main measure of popularity was how many people turned up at your rally.

In '92 and '97, candidates still got around the country, but those elections were really fought on television. Now I suppose it's the Internet.

Mergers and maneuvering remain common election themes. The failure of talks between the Kims -- Dae-jung and Young-sam -- on a joint candidacy in '87, and their subsequent loss to Roh Tae-woo, has stood as a lesson for every would-be president since. In '92, oppositionist Kim Young-sam joined with Mr. Roh's government party, became its candidate and won. He then dissed his new friend by cheekily claiming that true democracy had now arrived in the form of himself, as if to say that the previous five years had been an extension of a dictatorship.

In '97, Kim Dae-jung teamed with Kim Jong-pil and became the first opposition candidate to win.

Last month Chung Mong-joon conceded to support Roh Moo-hyun. We'll see tonight if this remains a winning formula.

Usually, they say, an election boils down to an overriding issue. It's hard to say whether this applies to Korean elections. You always get the feeling that the only issue is personality, even in '97 when the country was bankrupted by the Asian financial crisis.

The television debates give the impression that this election is about issues -- the economy, moving the capital to Daejeon -- but then if you're on TV, you've got to talk about something.

North Korea always manages to figure in South Korean elections. On the eve of the '87 vote, we were treated to the spectacle of a captured North Korean terrorist arriving under guard at Gimpo Airport, and even that boosted the conservative vote for the government.

In '97, we later discovered, the country's own intelligence agency tried to pay the North to cause an incident in the hope it would boost the government candidate's chances. The fact that no one was executed for this act of treason is an indication of the extent to which behind-the-scenes manipulation is accepted as a normal practice.

The great beauty of a democracy is that you don't have to worry about this election if you don't want to. Those who care, vote. Those who don't can go skiing because today is, after all, a holiday.

* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of "The Koreans." He is a member of the JoongAng Daily ombudsman committee.

by Michael Breen

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