[Viewpoint] The underdog election effect

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[Viewpoint] The underdog election effect

The victory of the underdogs in June’s local elections was repeated in Wednesday’s by-elections. The candidates who campaigned against all kinds of odds won. Voters again upset the general belief that they will climb aboard the bandwagon of majority opinion as they instead cast ballots for the less known candidates who were predicted to be defeated in the pre-election polls.

The candidates and parties, drawing on their experience in the June elections, seem to have expected some form of the underdog effect in recent by-elections. They resorted to humbling themselves and pleading for sympathy instead of boasting about their accomplishments and bashing their opponents.

The Grand National Party, subdued by its crushing defeat in June, begged for at least one or two wins to save face. The opposition Democratic Party also complained they were also fighting an uphill battle and hoped to benefit from the pity of voters.

These displays of political modesty did the job in encouraging voters to favor the less favored. GNP candidate Lee Jae-oh, who made a political comeback in the Eunpyeong B district in the by-election, garbed himself in the guise of a underdog by not relying on active support from the ruling party and instead conducting his campaign by bicycle.

Former presidential aide Yoon Jin-sik may have won sympathy after losing his seat in the June election and the National Assembly’s veto against the government’s proposal to revise the Sejong City legislation. Both ruling party candidates overcame a decision by the opposition parties to field an unity candidate against them.

Ruling party candidate Lee Sang-kwon in the Gyeyang B district in Incheon was a three-time election loser. Kim Ho-youn was the underdog candidate in the Cheonan district where the ruling party is shunned by Chungcheong voters.

Democratic Party candidates Park Wu-sun and Choi Jong-won may have won sympathy votes from Gangwon electorates after their party colleague Lee Kwang-jae, who was elected as Gangwon governor in June, was suspended from office after the constitutional court convicted him of bribery charges. Pity for the ruling party following its staggering defeat in the June election helped the GNP regain political ground.

But we have to coolly reflect on this phenomenon of candidates seeking sympathy votes and electorates turning soft the weaker party. Like many things in the world, there are two sides to the coin. We must first look at the background of the underdog effect.

The sentiment of rebelling against the concentration of power and political dominance in governance is good news for democracy. A balance in power can enrich democracy. On the other hand, voters may be so extremely disgusted with everyone in power that they hate seeing any side have more control, whether it is the conservative or liberal party or the central or local governments.

If the underdog effect is due to the latter reason, the entire power system is in jeopardy. No policies or decision can win public support, frustrating overall governance. Under current political circumstances, such a possibility is highly probable.

The underdog effect can serve as a double-edged sword for the politicians as well. It is better to see politicians modest and humble instead of them boasting how powerful and mighty they are. They can be of greater service to their voters. At the same time, if they are obsessed with the underdog image, they may become opportunistic and populist, instead of aggressively trotting out new agendas, communicating with the people and actively seeking to resolve differences, in order to win the next election.

The more active they are in a political role, the less they will come across to their voters as the weaker party. The political parties also may tread more carefully in every political step.

It looks evident that voters bear a soft heart for the weaker party. We hope it comes from a sincere desire to maintain a balance in power and keep one party in check against the other. Politicians must strive to work on the merits of the underdog phenomenon and avoid its trap.

They must continue to act as humble politicians while being vigorous in their political roles. It is the only way to extend the victories to the next general and presidential elections.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor in the political science department at Kyung Hee University.

By Lim Soung-ho
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