[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]With Roh, it’s all outsider politicsFor the umpteenth time, President Roh Moo-hyun pondered publicly the possibility of leaving office early. Last Sunday, he said that he would resign if his campaign had received more than 10 percent of the illegal campaign funds received by the Grand National Party (GNP). The media and much of the public reacted with a sigh, but the president’s remarks prompted former GNP presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang to confess that he had asked aides to gather illegal funds. This turn of events raises an interesting question: What if President Roh is right?
This is a high-stakes question. If he is right about the GNP, then he can save his presidency. If he is wrong, then the chances of an early departure will increase greatly.
This tense political situation is odd because the fate of the presidency hangs on an issue that does not normally stir strong emotions. Why, then, would a president invest so much political capital in an issue that resonates so weakly with the public? Something must be at work in the president’s mind. This is what commentators call the “Roh code.”
The “Roh code” is hard to crack because Roh Moo-hyun is the first president of Korea to take office as an outsider in the age of Internet campaigns. He did not assume with the help of an entrenched political machine, and he had never led a party and had limited experience in government.
The key to the cracking the “Roh code” is “outsiderness.” Even as president, Roh casts himself as an outsider railing against entrenched elites. His recent comments about campaign funding reflect the same “outsiderness,” and his threats of resignation reflect the self-righteousness that comes from taking pride in “outsiderness.”
The problem for President Roh, is that each of the battles has cost him politically. The media got the best of him earlier in the year as the public tired of a president who worried about what the media said about him. His withdrawal from the Millennium Democratic Party cost him his political base in the National Assembly as the public showed little interest in his new Our Open Party.
Form this perspective, the current spat over campaign funds gives the president an exit strategy to make up for a year of setbacks. If the president comes out of battle looking clean, then he will assuage growing doubts that the nation made the wrong choice by choosing an inexperienced outsider over an establishment insider. At a deeper level, such an outcome will legitimize outsider politics as an effective political strategy for winning and governing.
A legitimized outsider politics will throw open Korean politics to new forces for good. The prime mover among those new forces is educated voters who find attachment in images, not regions, and who are loyal to ideas, not persons.
In 2002, they liked the image of Roh Moo-hyun as the younger, more progressive candidate. If the same Roh Moo-hyun discredits the older, more conservative forces that have bested him for a year, then the outsider Our Open Party may gain surprising traction in the 2004 general election.
Oddly, the success of “outsiderness” in Korea in 2002 foreshadowed the rise of Howard Dean in the U.S. as the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like Roh Moo-hyun, Dean casts himself as the self-righteous outsider, and is using the Internet to rally his forces to the surprise of political pundits. If Dean wins the Democratic nomination next year, then 2004 election will have been “Koreanized” according to the “Roh code.”
However, against Dean, President Bush is sure to win, but the outsider and his Internet brigades will have had their first taste at national campaign. They will wait for 2008, by which time it will be clear whether the world’s first outsider Internet candidate will have completed his term in office successfully.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser