[Viewpoint]Sohn’s last gambleOne bad decision can send you falling into a bottomless pit. This is especially true in the world of politics, where people are usually forced to make tough decisions. The problem is, no matter how wise one may be, one is destined to make a mistake at least once or twice. When faced with a desperate situation due to a bad decision, most politicians find it hard to break through and end up ruining themselves. Only a few can overcome such a decision to survive. Those people ultimately gain additional inner strength. Many political leaders ruin their political careers in an instant due to bad decisions they make in a presidential election year.
Sohn Hak-kyu, the new chairman of the United New Democratic Party, is one such politician.
He grew up politically in the Grand National Party. He was elected to the National Assembly with the party, then became governor of Gyeonggi Province under that banner. In addition, he served as a cabinet minister under former President Kim Young-sam, who led the New Korea Party, the precursor to the Grand National Party.
Although Sohn was a progressive political activist, he belonged to the conservative Grand National Party. And although he advocated reform, he emphasized the importance of the economy. His ability, as well as his reformist background, stood out in the Grand National Party, creating harmony amid disharmony. He received support from the press and intellectuals.
Sohn Hak-kyu was lagging far behind candidates Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye in the early stages of the Grand National Party primary, but still he was considered one of the party’s “big three” candidates.
In March of last year, however, he bolted from the Grand National Party and chose to join the governing party.
When he was defeated in the primary of the new party, many said, “This is the end of Sohn Hak-kyu.”
Grand National Party loyalists sneered at him, saying, “It is the end of a traitor.”
Left-leaning progressives considered his defeat as part of the natural order, saying, “Sohn Hak-kyu is not a legitimate progressive.”
Sohn has now reemerged. He has been elected chairman of the United New Democratic Party. This came about with the full support of the party’s assemblymen from the Seoul metropolitan area.
If the party takes into account only the support it got from the Jeolla provinces, it would have been better for the party to elect its former presidential candidate, Chung Dong-young, who won more than 80 percent of the votes there in the presidential election.
However, this would have drastically changed the new party into a local Jeolla-based party.
And because in the presidential election the people essentially voted against the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the UNDP could not select former prime ministers Lee Hae-chan or Han Myeong-sook.
Thus, Sohn was selected as the party’s front-man, giving him the chance to appeal to the people as someone who could give the UNDP a chance to balance out the conservatives in the upcoming general elections for the National Assembly, scheduled on April 9.
The present situation is both a crisis and an opportunity for Sohn. There is no doubt his new role is like having a poisoned drink. He is not in the position to lament, “What am I supposed to do in this difficult situation?”
After all, Sohn would not have become the chairman of the new party if its situation had not been this chaotic.
Needless to say, it is the worst of conditions for him and the party. If Chung Dong-young ended up in third place, instead of second, in the last election, the progressives could at least start anew from their election defeat.
The initial moves Sohn made after assuming the chairmanship were not bad. He proclaimed, “I will make the most cooperative yet determined opposition party in Korea’s political history,” and presented a “third way” as an alternative.
He gave assurances he would strengthen public welfare and reform the party’s nominating system. It seems that he is changing the characteristics of the party with speed and a driving force.
His choice of direction has also been positive thus far.
However, there is no future for Sohn, as well as the new party, if he stops there. Reform to that extent will not be enough to earn more than a passing glance from the people.
Right now, the people’s reaction is only just beginning to change from no interest to cool interest.
The people today are focused on making Korea an advanced country, so everyone knows the left-wing progressives of the past will not succeed. The only way is to take the same road, but it should forge a “third way” which is different from the one being taken by the Lee Myung-bak administration. That conclusion is already apparent.
And even that is not sufficient. Now that the direction has been set, Sohn should present the content that goes well with that direction.
It should not imitate the policy guidelines of the Grand National Party, the conservatives and extreme neo-liberals. As the UNDP moves toward its goal of making Korea an advanced country, it should distinguish itself by pushing progressive values: ethics, welfare policies and equal opportunities.
The third way is as narrow as a knife’s blade. It is the price the party must pay for ignoring the numerous warning signals that people gave the Roh administration during the last five years. The party could end up becoming a second Grand National Party and lose ground as the opposition party. Nontheless, that is the path the party should follow.
It is also Sohn’s responsibility to respond to the criticism within the party which goes against his ideological inclinations.
He must use all of his talent, experience, connections and ideas during the 78 days between now and the general elections.
If he succeeds, the United New Democratic Party will be able to position itself as an alternative party, and Sohn will rise again. But if he fails, it will be the end for both of them.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo