[Viewpoint] GNP may join endangered species listStrangely, the image of a giant Galapagos tortoise popped into my head as I watched the long faces of ruling Grand National Party members gathered in front of a TV reporting the vote counts of the Seoul mayoral by-election this week. The subspecies that inhabits the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago west of the Ecuadorian mainland, is famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The native tortoise population that is spread across seven islands in the archipelago has evolved with features distinctively different from mainland species. But many species have become extinct, or are in danger of dying out, due to increased human settlements, the growing tourism industry and the non-native animal population on the islands.
The South American chain of islands usually associated with biological concerns came into focus in a bad way recently as it was used to describe the declining and overly introverted Japanese technology industry. The industry has lost touch with the needs of consumers outside Japan as their main products - mobile phones - strictly adhere to domestic standards and demands, even though they possess an edge in terms of their capabilities and design. But after watching the results of the Seoul mayoral by-election, where an independent political novice beat the ruling party candidate, the analogy appears to suit the GNP, with its growing political isolation and inability to connect to the outside world.
According to the exit polls, GNP candidate Na Kyung-won only managed to gather more votes than her chief rival among voters older than 50. The ruling party lost by a landslide among the most economically and socially active generation group, or those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Of 25 electorates in the capital, the GNP took the lead in just four. The GNP’s votes were largely restricted to residents in wealthy southern Seoul and senior citizens, meaning that, if Seoul is an ocean, the party has become an isolated island. But the ruling party has created this situation for itself as it has developed into a kind of interest group for the elite. Its membership is seemingly restricted to lawyers, entrepreneurs and senior government officials. The members are all wealthy, successful and industrious.
Na, who ran against the new Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, also boasts a stunning profile. Her elegant appearance, academic career and political records are enough to inspire awe from the public. She was one of the elite and untouchables of the GNP’s elite gang, so the controversy swirling around her habit of spending 100 million won ($90,500) each year on aesthetic dermatology has apparently worked in her disfavor.
A series of scandals and controversies that have erupted during Lee Myung-bak’s governance have also resulted in the party’s estrangement. The level of poor judgment exercised by Lee and his aides in picking candidates who were later discovered to have accumulated their wealth via shady deals is nothing short of uncanny.
The GNP has become as alienated a group as the rare Galapagos tortoise, which cannot survive outside its native habitat. Most Korean people these days are struggling with job instability, unemployment or economic hardship as the gulf between haves and have-nots in society broadens. But the powerful and wealthy GNP and its acolytes appear to be unaffected by these everyday problems. The GNP is just as much to blame as the president for having lost any sense of connection with the public.
Every society has its elite and successful groups, and they traditionally engage in political power struggles with those forces that threaten to strip them of their privileges. In order to defend their vested interests, the elite class must better demonstrate how it can live in harmony with the rest of society and share more of its privileges. Only through such efforts could the public be persuaded to stay true to the powers that be.
Instead of attacking as populist the opposition’s demand for free school lunches and cuts in college tuition fees, the ruling party should have dug deeper into what prompted such calls and tried to find solutions to the problems. The GNP has become an outcast because it secluded itself with a false sense of superiority and a very real narrow-mindedness.
With the parliamentary and presidential elections looming, will the GNP share the same fate as the endangered Galapagos species? Evolutionary steps may be required if it hopes to survive the vagaries of fate.
*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of politics and foreign affairs at Seoul National University.
By Kang Won-taek