Sign of the times

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Sign of the times

The Korea and Germany Forum was held last weekend in Munich and attended by some 40 figures from both countries. In the political section, Theo Sommer, the former publisher of Die Zeit, presented “Domestic politics in Germany under the Grand Coalition.” As for Korea’s politics, I presented “Korea’s politics in light of the upcoming presidential election.” My presentation can be outlined as follows:
There are two main opinions about the presidential election in December. One is that the result was decided when the opposition Grand National Party had its primary. That assertion is based on the higher-than-50-percent approval ratings enjoyed by Lee Myung-bak.
The other is that the presidential election could go either way. Two months in Korea’s politics is like two years in Germany. The ground for this argument is the “memory of November.” In the last two presidential elections, unexpected events happened in November. In 1997, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil, the two leading opposition candidates, created a coalition. In 2002 Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon also unified their candidacy. That can happen this time, too.
Those who say the election is already decided talk about zeitgeist. Elections reflect the spirit of the era. Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel assumed power because the spirit of the era was to replace left-wing governments. In Korea, administrations changed according to the spirit of the era. The country has rapidly gone from being underdeveloped with an annual $80 per capita income to one with a $20,000 per capita income in a relatively short period.
The Korean people wanted changes and such demands replaced administrations. For the last 10 years, democratization forces have led politics. They have run state affairs in the progressives and left-wing direction. In the economy, they prioritized fair distribution of wealth over growth. As a result, the economy went bad. Their egalitarian-oriented education system ruined the nation’s schools.
There has been a sense of crisis that Korea will be downgraded to a country that is merely sandwiched between China and Japan. As for reunification and foreign affairs policies, the democratization forces changed the direction from an anti-North Korea, pro-American policy to a pro-North Korea, anti-American policy. Nevertheless, North Korea conducted its nuclear test. Anti-Americanism has increased the sense of insecurity.
However, the regionalism that played a major role in elections has gradually been mitigated. As those from South and North Jeolla assumed power for the past 10 years, the people in the area no longer feel left out or deprived. The candidate for the opposition party enjoys high approval ratings now thanks to the spirit of this era. Koreans now want another change.
Nevertheless, can the memory of previous Novembers be brought back this time? There are three possibilities.
First, the unification of candidates in the ruling circle. For this to become effective, the candidates’ approval ratings must be higher than certain levels. But for now, the candidates, except Chung Dong-young, have insignificant approval ratings. The success of the unified liberal candidacy depends on whether their approval ratings go up.
Second, the collapse of Lee Myung-bak. He could fall if suspicions about illegal transactions or property deals rise again and damage him. If he keeps his approval ratings, negative campaigns will not work because the most contentions candidate’s camp will dominate the campaign. But this can have negative effects. Criticism has already erupted that Lee has become powerful even before being elected. If such criticism spreads, his approval ratings could nosedive at any moment.
The third possibility lies with the threat of a terrorist attack. If this happens, the election campaign and the election itself might be ruined.
Which among memories of November and the era’s spirit is more realistic? I choose the spirit of the era, when considering the country’s future. The memory of November is based on political engineering. An attempt to hinder the tide of the era by adjusting candidates violates principles of democracy.
The German participants at the forum were keenly interested in what changes will occur if Lee is elected. I answered that former presidents of Korea were soldiers or politicians but he used to be a CEO. Because of this, his leadership will be entirely different. I explained that he will pursue pragmatic, realistic and goal-oriented leadership, but there is a chance that he might decide everything as if he were running a company. Economy, reunification and foreign affairs policies will follow the spirit of the new era, I concluded.

*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk

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