[Viewpoint] A very different mayoral race

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[Viewpoint] A very different mayoral race

The Seoul mayoral race is going to be tight. Chung Doo-un, director of the Grand National Party’s Youido Institute, believes that the close contest is due to Park Won-soon’s decline, not Na Kyung-won’s rise. In other words, Park lost his veneer as voters became more acquainted with his career and background.

There are signs that the issues surrounding his adoption, military service exemption, corporate donations and campaign to blacklist candidates will remain storms in a teacup. More volatile, however, is the issue surrounding education.

Voters in their 20s and 30s, usually liberal, were stirred when they learned that Park’s daughter had transferred to the law department from the art design department at Seoul National University. Many young Koreans have considered transferring within their college or to another college, and they have increasingly become undecided voters in the aftermath of the revelation.

This election is unfolding quite differently from campaigns of the past. Most notably, both ruling and opposition lawmakers are not very excited. Rather than investing all of their energies into supporting their party’s candidate, they offer lukewarm backing. They are not sure how the outcome of the Seoul mayoral election will affect their political fates in the legislative election slated for April 2012.

A reformist member of the Grand National Party was worried that a win by Na would doom efforts to reform the party. If the ruling party is complacent with the present structure and remains the same, the thinking goes, it will be defeated in the general election.

Representative Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of the GNP, who had once derided Na as “an actress politician,” would be more pleased than Representative Park Geun-hye, who is providing all of Na’s support, if Na is elected.

Democratic Party lawmakers are passive as well. One even said in private that Park’s election would be a disaster. In the course of integrating the opposition, the DP’s share would be reduced. In the worst-case scenario, they cannot rule out the possibility that incumbent lawmakers will fail to get nominated.

In fact, aside from Representative Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the DP, and Representative Park Young-sun, Park Won-soon is surrounded by pro-Roh Moo-hyun politicians and former activists. The “rainbow coalition” of Moon Jae-in, Han Myeong-sook, Lee Hae-chan and Rhyu Si-min may team up with Park and pressure the mainstream Democrats. That is why the DP’s lawmakers are reluctant to provide cover fire.

Fortunately, the structure of chronic regional confrontations has clearly collapsed. Because Park ran as an independent, the overwhelming support for the GNP in the Gangnam region has toned down considerably. The DP’s dominance in the Gangbuk region has also softened. The trend of voters from the Jeolla region supporting the opposition is also changing. In fact, Na has surpassed Park in a poll taken in southwestern Seoul, where a large part of the population is from the Jeolla region.

We also need to keep an eye on the contest between online and offline campaigns. The GNP boasts that it has 700,000 followers on Twitter, but Twitter is already Park’s terrain. His mentors include writers Lee Oi-soo and Kong Ji-young, and Seoul National University law professor Cho Kuk, who are among the top Twitter users. Lee Oi-soo alone has over 900,000 followers.

The power of the finger is formidable in cyberspace. In the liberal primary to field a single candidate, the DP mobilized its party organization but was defeated by the power of the finger. Voters in their 20s and 30s discovered the power in the by-election in Bundang and now use their influence as they wish. In contrast, voters in their 50s and 60s are not likely to change their minds.

In this election, it is hard to expect a contest over policy and character. It is a battle between conservatives and liberals, online and offline, and the older generation and the young generation. And the supporters for each side are united solidly.

At this point, we cannot exclude the possibility of the “voting against” trend. Rather than aggressively promoting their vision, the candidates may be waiting for the other side to make a mistake. Society is evolving, but election campaigns are degenerating.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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