Problem is power, not policyIn the local elections on May 31, 2006, the Roh Moo-hyun government and his party suffered the worst defeat ever for any ruling party. The public expected some serious retrospection and change from the president. But President Roh remained defiant. On the day after the election, his chief presidential secretary delivered a run-of-the-mill comment from the president that he accepted public opinion, but the president added that he would do his best to pursue his existing policies, suggesting the election would change nothing. The next day, he said, “Not all the right people win elections. Just because they lose, it doesn’t mean their role in history is wrong.”
Many were disheartened to hear this self-righteous comment from the president, claiming that he was right but misunderstood by the public. The usually friendly president did not address the people over the election. A year and a half later, his government suffered a devastating loss to the opposition conservative party.
Four years later, we are experiencing deja vu. The day after the most recent elections, President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting and said the government should refocus on the economy. The following day, he flew to Singapore. The president has not said a word to the public about the election results. The circumstances are different from four years ago. In the first half the economy grew more than 8 percent on-year, and approval for the president is near 50 percent. A security crisis broke out following the Cheonan’s sinking. The government is hosting a G-20 Summit and won a multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor project. The president may be confounded by the election and stung by the public’s rebuke.
But if the president’s thoughts stop here, he has a worm’s eye view. The public has not censured the president, but has reined him in. They were warning against his steamrolling approach to the four rivers project and to revisions to the Sejong City plan. They were unhappy with the disproportionate power he wielded.
The election was the public’s letter to the president. The president must now reply. He must share his thoughts on Sejong City now that Chungcheong citizens have made their anger felt; on the four rivers project, which is strongly opposed by other parties; and on the large-scale reshuffle suggested even by ruling party members. If he believes future projects should not be affected by election results, he should say so and seek understanding. The opposition claims the election results represent public opposition to punitive action against North Korea for sinking the Cheonan. The president must say the opposition is wrong to make this argument and reassure us that national security policy will remain intact. He may have lost the election, but he can still connect with the public.