[Viewpoint] Some ugly premonitionsA dozen of the rare, giant oarfish washed ashore or were caught in fishermen’s nets in the Japan’s coastal region of Ishikawa before the monstrous earthquake shook the country on March 11 and produced the giant tsunami that inundated its northeast.
The Japanese call oarfish “devil fish” because they live at depths of 1,000 meters (3,281 feet), are rarely discovered, and when they are, they are considered harbingers of a powerful earthquake. There is a scene in the 2008 Japanese animated film “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” by director Hayao Miyazaki in which an old lady spots a fish-girl and trembles in fear - she, too, is considered a prefigurement of a tsunami.
Bad things often come after portentous signs. U.S. President Barack Obama has had an awful track record in endorsing candidates or cheering on sports teams, who end up losing. Democratic Party candidates tried to keep the president at a distance during the midterm elections in November fearing the bad luck - or even a curse - that he may carry. As it happened, the Democrats indeed lost their majority in the House of Representatives in those elections.
The federal government barely avoided a shutdown after the Congress finally endorsed a 2011 budget compromise last week at the cost of cuts in defense and health care spending. But the confrontation between Democrats and Republicans is still going on over the issue of raising the congressionally imposed debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion, which, if it isn’t done, will make the government unable to meet its debt obligations due next month. In the midst of the political statement, rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on U.S. sovereign debt to negative from stable. Bad things seem to come in threes for President Obama.
The separation of powers and the checks and balances it ensures are some of the biggest merits of the democratic system, but they can work against strong or effective leadership. The term of President Roh Tae-woo was greatly affected by the election of a majority opposition during a general election in his first year in power. He was forced to succumb to opposition demands and sacked key political figures from past administration and sent his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, into exile at a temple.
In a parliamentary democracy, the president has limits to what he can achieve after all the cajoling and conflict with the legislative branch throughout his five years in office. Even a strongman like President Park Chung Hee knew the need to fill a third of the assembly seats with his supporters, without elections.
The ruling Grand National Party is getting desperate at the appearance of some ugly premonitions. Some of the candidates running for next week’s by-elections bluntly told party executives to keep their distance during the campaign. Party members are in panic mode. In last month’s JoonAng Ilbo poll, 80 of 122 GNP lawmakers feared the ruling party will lose its parliamentary majority in next year’s general election. Only 22 thought they will be able to sustain their majority.
Based on their estimates, the ruling party’s seats might dwindle to 129 from its current 171. Various polls also reflect poorly on GNP chances in constituencies that were traditional voting bases for the conservative party. The GNP is hearing from its constituents in the southern region, who are bitter about the president’s abandonment of a campaign promise to build a new airport in the region. The president has already become a lame duck in the eyes of the legislature.
The focus now is on next year’s elections. President Lee Myung-bak appointed his intraparty political rival, Park Geun-hye, as an envoy for a mission to Europe next week. The intense power struggle between the camps loyal to Lee and Park has eased but could resurface when election season begins.
Many expect friction will worsen over the nomination of the presidential candidate. The party’s internal survey showed the ruling party candidate can win in only five electorates in Seoul. The party will be further set back if it suffers another rebellion from Park’s supporters.
Former GNP Chairwoman Park is nicknamed the Queen of Elections for her stunning record of endorsing winners. However, she refused to play the cheerleader role after Lee took his oath as president in an apparent show of hard feelings. Many suspected she was looking toward the next presidential election. In fact, she is the most promising candidate.
If she does win the presidential race in December 2012, she will have to work with the legislature that is elected a year from now. For President Lee, the fight ends next year. But for Park, the fight begins next year. Park has a bigger responsibility of uniting the ruling party ahead of 2012 because the outcome of the next general election will largely shape her destiny.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook