[Viewpoint] Politics needs the softer touch

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[Viewpoint] Politics needs the softer touch

Chin Soo-hee, Na Kyung-won, and Lee Hye-hoon, once star female players on the conservative ruling party’s team, have been replaced and forced to sit out the big match of next month’s legislative elections. They have parted ways, but there was a time when they sat under the same roof of a fancy party headquarters on the same street as the National Assembly on Yeouido, western Seoul, in 2002.

Na was an extraordinary case of a female judge stepping down from the bench to join politics. The hoopla over her political debut a decade ago can be imagined considering the fact that a judge or prosecutor quitting to go into the Assembly still makes news today. She became part of the dream team of assistants for then-conservative party presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang.

Her peers included representatives Choi Kyung-hwan, Kim Jung-hoon and Suh Sang-kee. Those three men received special assistant titles according to their areas of expertise: the economy, legal affairs, and science and technology. Na, despite her outstanding career in the judiciary, was referred to as a “female special assistant.” It was hard to figure out her role because there were already two female special assistants specializing in women’s issues.

Lee Hye-hoon came on the political scene around the same time. She joined the special assistant team on policies thanks to her doctorate in economics. Her title did not contain the word “female.” Representative Chin Soo-hee, with a doctorate in sociology, was a member of the conservative party’s think tank, the Yeouido Research Institute.

Their starts were humble. The Saenuri Party, then the Grand National Party, did not have many female members on board. It was par for the course for the conservative party. Women activists usually preferred the opposition or liberal parties, where they got along well with men of similar backgrounds and values, many former students or civilian activists.

But the habitat of the GNP was different. Women members had to be either acquainted with high-profile figures in the party or their wives. There was a hushed rumor that one of executive female representatives was spotted in a restaurant powder room holding the bag of a political bigwig’s wife. Female politicians in the ruling party stayed in the lady’s corner, the periphery of the central party stage.

However, these newcomers were different. They were armed with professional expertise. They were scouted, but nevertheless followed the same political course as the male novices. Even after the party’s defeat in the 2002 presidential election, they stayed on board. In 2004, they gained legislative seats. The party introduced a quota for nominations for women. Chin and Na became proportional representatives, while Lee was elected in Seocho District in southern Seoul.

Since then, they made their names known. That’s no small deal because not many of the 299 legislators are even remembered by the public or come out gracefully from the media spotlight.

But strangely, none of these women veterans were nominated to run in the April 11 legislative elections. Chin lost her constituency in Seongdong A District in eastern Seoul for a “strategic” reason of the party. She was forced to yield because she served in the government as health minister. But that may not be the real reason. Her predecessor, Jeon Jae-hee, who has the same track record, got a nomination.

Lee was sloughed off because she served three terms in the rich neighborhood of Seocho, which promised a relatively easy win for a conservative candidate. That didn’t stop male candidates from bidding for re-election in other southern districts in Seoul, the political home base for the ruling party. Na received the axe because she lost the Seoul mayoral by-election. But no one bothered to point out that she was pushed into that ring.

Politics is a tough game, especially for women with less experience and skills to survive in an organization like the ruling party. But the female role in politics is getting bigger. Demand exceeds supply. The Saenuri Party, which needs all the help it can get from women voters, kicked aside its group of trained and talented women.

Its method was also mean. Chin grumbled that she must have made too many enemies. Some are saying that the old guard on the nomination committee from South Gyeongsang vetoed women they did not like in an effort to cut them off before they could occupy long-held seats.

The Lee Myung-bak administration came under fire from the beginning for being anti-women with a plan to close a ministry on women’s affairs. From what we have seen from the nominations, the party has not changed much.

*The author is deputy editor of political news of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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