[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]What is Roh’s political strategy?

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]What is Roh’s political strategy?

President Roh Moo-hyun showed again this week that he is a man of surprises. His sudden departure from the Millennium Democratic Party on Monday came faster than political observers expected. His departure also creates a unique political situation: a president with no party affiliation. Except for presidential election campaign periods, all presidents in recent years have maintained a party affiliation as a way to dominate the National Assembly.
Mr. Roh said that he wanted to concentrate on his administrative agenda without getting bogged down in gossip over his future political affiliation. In the future, he will hold brief-ings with all parties instead of working closely with a particular party. Most political observers expect him to join the new People’s Participatory and Unity Party in the run-up to April’s legislative elections.
The unusual political situation creates confusion because none of the actors knows what to do. The first sign of confusion came last week as the National Assembly rejected the president’s nominee to head the Board of Audit and Inspection by a 136-87 vote. Many suspect that some Millennium Democrats joined with the majority Grand National Party and small Liberal Democratic Party in the secret-ballot vote. The rejection leaves the post open, raising the question of how it and other such posts will be filled. It also raises the question of whether relations between the president and National Assembly have entered an irreversible downward spiral.
The question is important because Mr. Roh’s political survival may depend on it. The two largest parties are products of the “three Kims” era, when regionalism decided elections. In that paradigm, the key to winning elections was to rally the party boss’s home region around him while making an alliance with smaller regional and political forces. To control the National Assembly, the party boss chose candidates himself, ensuring their loyalty and support if they got elected.
Most of the politicians in the Grand National and Millennium Democratic parties and the United Liberal Democrats are holdovers from the era of political bosses. They are attached to the old system, making them essentially conservative. The president’s departure from the Millennium Democratic Party is a threat because it raises the specter of a more open politics based on ideas and direct contact with voters. If an independent president can use appeals to the people to influence votes in the Assembly, then voters may expect their representatives to do the same thing.
Mr. Roh is no doubt counting on direct appeals to voters to support him in battles with the Assembly and, most certainly, in the National Assembly elections next year. Though the president’s popularity has waned, many in their 20s and 30s remain suspicious of established politicians and are less swayed by appeals to regionalism than older generations. This gives the president and the new party substantial potential popularity.
The problem, of course, is that politics is not rational and rarely goes as planned, particularly when entrenched forces feel threatened. To face a common threat, they often end up cooperating with one another, regardless of the differences that divided them in the past. The Grand National and Millennium Democratic parties have competed fiercely in presidential elections and for National Assembly seats in the neutral zones of Seoul, Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Gangwon, but they have been uncompetitive in one another’s home turf of Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces, respectively.
To protect the home turf and politics as they know it, what if both parties agreed not to oppose each other in part or most of the neutral zones? The results would be devastating for Mr. Roh because any sort of cooperation between the two parties would make it impossible for the new party to gain control of the National Assembly. Results from the recent presidential election show that regionalism is very much alive in these areas.
All of this puts Mr. Roh in a dilemma. He cannot build a working majority in the National Assembly and threaten the established parties at the same time. He can try to stir support among the younger generation, but this alone is unlikely to create a working majority. Alternatively, he can try to gain support from potentially sympathetic groups within the Grand National and Millennium Democratic parties, but this may require more compromising than the president is willing to do. Or, in the most likely scenario, he could use conflicts with the Assembly to bolster his image as a reformer in the hope of rallying support through a Clintonesque permanent campaign.
This strategy carries great risk for Mr. Roh but for the nation, it holds the promise of a new idea-based politics.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is heungbob@hanmail.net.


by Robert J. Fouser

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