[Viewpoint] Storm reshaping political landscape

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[Viewpoint] Storm reshaping political landscape

Ahn Cheol-soo only hinted at the possibility of running for Seoul mayor, but he is already being tipped as a promising presidential candidate. Such a turn of events has left both the Grand National Party and Democratic Party perplexed.

The GNP can hide behind Park Geun-hye to try and avoid the winds of change, but the DP seems to be standing in an open field, where it will face the coming storm alone.

Since the emergence of Ahn, who serves as dean of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu and other leading politicians have been struggling with single-digit support ratings at the opinion polls.

Voters have not shown much interest in the candidates for Seoul mayor that were mentioned from within the DP. This shows how much the situation has changed from last year’s local election, and the more recent by-election, when the opposition was riding a wave of euphoria.

As such, it naturally expected that voters who felt let down by the ruling GNP and the Lee Myung-bak administration would continue to lend their support. But this has hardly been the case.

This unexpected turn of events has, of course, largely been driven by Ahn’s personal charm and attractive platforms that appeal to the public’s interest, ethics and common sense. However, the turnaround can also be blamed on the way the political system here is structured.

The merging of three parties back in January 1990 led to a political confrontation - divided along regional lines as much as platform - that still defines the political status quo.

Two decades ago, Roh Tae-woo’s Democratic Justice Party, Kim Young-sam’s Unification Democratic Party and Kim Jong-pil’s New Democratic Republican Party were fused together to form the Democratic Liberal Party, which drew its support from the Gyeongsang region.

This created an immediate confrontation between the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions, with the latter represented by Kim Dae-jung’s Peace Democratic Party.

When Kim’s party was about to be isolated geographically, he invited progressive leaders with no political affiliation to join, in order to dilute the regional color and add more of an ideological tinge.

Korean party politics is primarily based on the regional discord between these two vast regions, as well as the ideological sparring between conservatives and progressives.

This ideological division intensified during the reign of Kim Dae-jung due to his “Sunshine policy” of rapprochement with North Korea.

Now we are seeing a new situation emerge entirely with the soaring popularity of Ahn, as it shows how voters are effectively turning their back on a system that has been in place for two decades.

Voters may be hoping for the political circle to be completely redrawn beyond these two dichotomies - regional and ideological - which has formed the basis for 20 years of political wrangling.

While Ahn is a native of Busan, in Gyeongsang, he has expressed a negative attitude towards the GNP, which has the region as its stronghold. At the same time, he has not been particularly warm to the DP either. Ahn pronounced that he is conservative in terms of national security and progressive on economic issues.

His ambiguous stance is incomprehensible according to the rules defined by conventional party politics. But voters have grown tired of the status quo and are demanding a new political paradigm.

Now it looks like the current dominant political parties will have a tough time surviving unless they can break out of their funk and come up with ways of satisfying the public. At this point in time, the DP still has to find a creative way of transcending the legacy of Kim Dae-jung, who is still viewed as its largest political asset and chief symbol.

Kim was a great politician, of that there is no doubt. He challenged previous dictatorships and cold war ideologies, but voters have had enough of the staid order he established decades ago.

The DP should take drastic steps to surrender its vested interests as the traditional opposition party, while the same demand for fundamental change applies to the GNP as well.

But at least the GNP has one popular leader, which the DP lacks, putting it in the position of being more desperate to make a break from the past and seek innovative new solutions.

The United Kingdom’s Liberal Party serves as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when parties ignore calls for change. It stood as one half of a solid two-party structure in the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the Conservative Party, but quickly lost its position to its chief rival when it failed to read the signs of the times.z

The DP should take notes from this important historical lesson. Will it be able to survive the storm represented by Ahn and an angry public? We are all watching to see what happens when the dust settles.

*The writer is a professor of politics and foreign affairs at the Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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