[Viewpoint] Has the sea change begun?

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[Viewpoint] Has the sea change begun?

Last week’s Seoul mayoral by-election was neither a win for the conservative nor the progressive establishments. But the election was a definite boost for the anti-establishment sentiments that the Democratic Party has never been able to effectively manage or represent.

Following election day, the morning’s newspapers reported that even the Grand National Party’s candidate Na Kyung-won’s home ward of Jung District, central Seoul, voted against her. Of Seoul’s 25 wards, except for three wealthy southern districts, all voted against her. The victory margin was decisive, but from listening to many people on Seoul’s streets, I was expecting even more of a landslide.

We should remember the prior conservative mayor had squeaked by a challenge by a popular but rather inept female politician. That near victory by the progressives demonstrated how unpopular the conservatives had become. Where Na picked up a very large share of her votes was from those voters over 60 years old who turn out disproportionately for their demographic compared to those of the younger electorate strata. Many of the oldsters openly opined that liberal independent candidate Park Won-soon was a “communist.” So Park’s opposition was quite visceral and determined.

In any case, one may say the biggest factor of Park’s victory was youthful and even middle-aged discontent. Voter polling indicates the younger the voters, the greater the alienation and the stronger the support for a reasonable, anti-establishment, independent candidate.

Two questions foreign journalists have been asking are what this election portends to the ratification of the Korea-U.S. FTA; and what impact may this shift in Korean politics have on overall U.S.-ROK relations. Given the independents’ lack of a political agenda as articulated by a political party platform, it is too early to say. The election was a local one, concerned with local issues, such as jobs.

Traditionally, liberal or progressive Koreans have gone after the United States as a proxy when attacking the Korean establishment. Blaming the United States has been a safe and nationalist way to release many people’s frustrations.

But today, when one is no longer in danger of being jailed for criticizing those in power, the anti-U.S. card becomes weaker with each passing year. The anti-U.S. 386 Generation is rapidly becoming Korea’s “Geritol Generation” of graying activists, and thereby becoming less relevant to today’s under-employed generation. Yes, Park Won-Soon is a 386’er, but he is largely supported by those much younger than him.

If the Korus FTA’s proponents can credibly argue the treaty will increase new jobs, I suspect the younger voters will support it. On the other hand, if the Korus FTA ratification comes across as yet one more cynical maneuver to serve the rich at the expense of the bottom 80 percent, then there could be trouble.

Again, it is too early to say mass street demonstrations are even a serious possibility. But we should remember that major, pent-up pressures made it possible for an independent nonpolitician to be elected last week to Korea’s second-most important office. We should also recall that past foot-and-mouth-disease demonstrations essentially had nothing to do with public health. Those protests were essentially a way for the disaffected young masses, over several weeks, to repeatedly show up and express their angst to the Korean establishment that they can take over the streets if they are pushed too hard or simply ignored.

Given this overall context, virtually all political commentators are extrapolating what this means for next year’s presidential elections. The left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper has suggested that the conservatives’ flag bearer, Representative Park Geun-Hye, could be the big loser.

Former conservative and current political opportunist, Representative Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the Democratic Party, had been cast as her likely opponent for next year’s presidential election. That may not end up being the case given how Seoulites have just voted. In other words, the DP and Sohn have not really benefitted by Park Won-Soon’s election. In fact, by December 2012, they could be damaged almost as much as the Grand National Party.

In any case, many people are now clamoring for software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo to run for president. Ahn, who is known for his inspirational lectures to young people, strategically backed mayoral candidate Park Won-Soon, rather than run for mayor himself. Ahn’s popularity reflects wide-spread alienation and he acts as a motivational catalyst for the masses that are sick and tired of traditional politics. Given these uncertain times and the general public’s disappointment with both the conservatives and the progressives, the populist desire for change is undeniable.

At the same time, we need to recall the last time an unconventional outsider served as president. Roh Moo-Hyun’s administration was in many ways disastrous in terms of effectively running the country, regardless of the quality of his ideas. President Roh simply didn’t have the administrative experience and skills.

Having run a successful company, perhaps Ahn could be better prepared than President Roh. No doubt, Ahn is keenly aware of his limitations. But the number of his supporters and sycophants are only likely to skyrocket as a result of this election. And with over a year to go until the next presidential election, even a wise and stable man such as Ahn could be convinced to run for office in spite of his lack of applicable experience. What is certain, however, is that a political sea change has begun in Korea.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.


By Tom Coyner

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