[Viewpoint] Three steps to victoryThe Grand National Party’s surprising defeat in the June 2 local elections was a warning for the Lee Myung-bak administration. But does that mean the government should change its current policy of pragmatic centrism?
Most election theories say that the outcome of the local elections cannot be interpreted as a national call for the Lee administration to give up its core policies. Not all local government elections were focused on the policies of the central government, such as the revised Sejong City plan or the four rivers project. And it’s not as though the Grand National Party lost in the national referendum on the plan to revise the Sejong City project, so no one can be certain that the election result illustrates a public sentiment that opposes the revised Sejong City plan.
That’s just the theory, however. The political reality is different. Moreover, if you apply the theories of party democracy, not the theories of elections, the president shares the responsibility for the GNP’s defeat in the elections with the party. The president and the GNP’s candidates for the local elections belong to the same party not just for convenience’s sake but because they share an ideology and favor the party’s policies.
Therefore, the Democratic Party began the offensive as soon as the election was over, demanding that the government give up the Sejong City revision and the four rivers project.
If President Lee hopes to lead the administration smoothly in the second half of his term, garnering support for the two major projects, he first needs to calm the public sentiment that became evident in the midterm election.
He needs to take three steps.
First, he needs to revitalize the government through a personnel reshuffle within the party, the government and the Blue House. The GNP leaders have already stepped down, and the Blue House chief of staff has expressed his intention to resign, taking responsibility for the election defeat.
In order to get through the crisis, the president needs to be successful with his personnel appointments. He should seek new faces that can win the support of the citizens and cooperation of the opposite party, and appoint them to positions in the party, government and the Blue House.
The GNP is in dire need of a generational shift in its leadership. The ruling party needs fresh, young talents to compete against the young leaders of the Democratic Party who are in their 40s and 50s. The election results highlighted the ruling party’s vulnerability to young voters, and it is desperately in need of leaders who can communicate with young people.
Second, President Lee should rearrange his policy priorities while maintaining his original administrative structure. The people-friendly pragmatic centrism of the Lee administration is still garnering a great deal of support from citizens. By clearly stating its identity through its North Korean policy, which differs from that of previous administrations, the administration has been enjoying strong support from conservatives. If this core basis is shifted, the administration will lose the trust of the citizens.
However, the priority for and the method of executing the policies needs to be adjusted and the administration needs to be more flexible.
The four rivers project is the policy most in need of a new approach. The government should slow its efforts to push for the controversial project since the public’s aversion to it is greater because the administration has been promoting it too aggressively. It would ultimately help the project if the government were to make a greater effort to persuade its opponents. The government should listen to opposing opinions and hold more discussions on issues that are controversial.
It does not make sense to stop construction on the four rivers projet, as there has already been considerable progress made. Yet the government should not give the impression that it is pursuing the project in an aggressive and reckless manner. Since the four rivers project is a grand project in the history of the next century for this nation, the Lee administration needs to implement the project prudently and thoroughly in order to win public support and dispel the anxiety of the skeptics. Since the summer monsoon season is approaching, the project must include measures to prevent flood damage as well.
The key to the Sejong City revision plan is to reach a prompt conclusion at the National Assembly. The vote should be taken after an in-depth discussion, so the controversy needs to be sorted out clearly. Although supporters and opponents of the project are entangled over the revision plan, there is still room for compromise. Depending on how the discussions go, the lawmakers should be able to narrow the gap between the original plan and the revised one.
The most important thing is President Lee’s leadership, in terms of his skills of communication and persuasion. When ruling and opposition party politicians meet frequently to consider issues of national importance, citizens will support them. Even if the ruling and opposition parties do not reach an agreement, the public will still be watching to see if they can talk instead of fight.
The GNP needs to be the first to change. As the latest election shows, the ruling party will again be defeated if the president’s approval rating is high but the ruling party is impotent.
It is not right for the party and the government to promote a new political agenda such as constitutional revision to shift the mood. Public support for the government has shrunk, albeit temporarily, which means the government will have trouble carrying out existing national tasks if it diverts its already insufficient political resources to new projects.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science and international relations at Inha University.
By Kim Yong-ho