[Viewpoint] The power transfer clock ticksI have to confess that I too was oblivious to the hidden turbulence in the seabed of public sentiment. The sinking of the Titanic, the Grand National Party, riding on the crest of a wave of economic accomplishments and North Korea’s torpedoing of the Cheonan, left even the victor, the opposition Democratic Party, flabbergasted.
The local press that forecast an easy win for the ruling conservative party scrambled for insight and quickly reversed their editorial lines, yet didn’t come up with much wisdom, basically relying on analyses that sounded like a rehash of the Toyota recall crisis: The party’s problems were oversight by elephantine management, one-man leadership, lack of a client-oriented mind-set, and laggard reforms.
So what sank the ruling party? There is a heated in-house debate between one side that sees the election as a crushing defeat and another who optimistically adopts the line that local elections usually fare badly for a ruling party.
The general laid-back attitude of the party angered reform-minded members, spreading the battle flames to the presidential office. The sweeping defeat in traditionally conservative constituencies such as Choongcheong, Gangwon and South Gyeongsang provinces and very narrow victories in the capital areas of Seoul and Gyeonggi was a dire augur of the party’s chances in the general and presidential elections two years from now.
It was younger voters who set off the alarm. The younger the voters were, the bigger their antipathy to the GNP. It wasn’t that they preferred the Democratic Party; they ticked any box that didn’t have a GNP candidate next to it.
Such anti-government sentiment wielded enormous power in the 2006 general elections and 2007 presidential elections. But this time, the beneficiary was the other side.
The DP understood the young voters and is trying to hide the smirk on its face while the GNP is still confounded, not knowing what it did to deserve such a cold shoulder.
The beauty of democracy is that it provides room for the loser to come back and keeps the political parties on their toes to serve voters. Yet the presidential office is deaf to the voices of rebuke from young voters.
The presidential office and ruling party do not seem to understand why they are being criticized for lacking a connection with voters, so confident are they that they’re keeping abreast of young voices through regular radio addresses, Internet chats and progressive programs to support youths with talent.
So the old guard in the party and presidential office blame the young for being naive and vulnerable to propaganda campaigns by left-wing parties.
If they believe that, they lack not a connection with the voter, but are totally in the dark. A majority of innovative - and unpredictable - youth spend their free time in the sea of cyberspace and are not easily found at places that politicians frequent.
A few days prior to election day, a few conservative newspapers looked back on the anti-government candlelight vigils of two years ago to ridicule the absurdity of such mob reactions to the mad cow disease scare.
But the young readership made fun of those commentaries by the conservative press. They applied the “deconstruction” theory to the investigative body’s report on the Cheonan sinking.
As a result, the “authoritative” conclusion that the torpedo was made by North Korea spawned numerous conspiracy theories.
In today’s online world, the cyber ocean where schools of fish reside, no single, certified truth exists. Logical reasoning on the restoration project for the four rivers and the new blueprint on Sejong City is swept up away by parallel waves of arguments involving ecosystems, human rights and peace.
The herd also does not stop in one place for very long. It quickly migrates to new values and ideas. The same herd turned their back on the DP in 2007. It is no wonder that the GNP, confined to an old school of development, and the presidential office, busy pursuing elephantine projects, have no idea how to connect with this young, vibrant group.
It is doubtful that the leadership in the government and GNP will suddenly develop sensitivity to current realities through a major reshuffle. There seems to be no one inside the GNP who can win back the young generation. The leadership has stepped down as a formality and former chairwoman Park Geun-hye told reporters just one thing: “I have nothing to say.” The president may have a lot to say, but he cannot strike a chord with the youth. Unless the conservative party develops an attractive new voice and inspiring rhetoric, it faces a hard battle in the 2012 presidential election. It has already tasted some of the humiliation in the curtain-raiser of the Seoul mayoral race. The clock on the transfer of power is ticking.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun