[Viewpoint] How the DUP blew it

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[Viewpoint] How the DUP blew it

Representative Chung Doo-un of the Saenuri Party barely managed to win a parliamentary seat in the general election. An exit poll by the major broadcasters showed that he was 5.2 percentage points behind his Democratic United Party rival Kim Young-ho. After the last ballot was counted, Chung won the neck-and-neck race by 625 votes.

If Chung wants to thank the people responsible for his victory, he should go first to Kim Yong-min, the DUP candidate in Nowon A district. In fact, Chung is not the only Saenuri candidate who should thank Kim. The exit poll turned out to be wrong in many places, because there were so many tight races. And in those areas, Saenuri candidates managed to score some surprise victories.

Some political commentators say that losing the general election will actually help the opposition win the Dec. 19 presidential election because voters want checks and balances. But this week’s general election was a different story. The newly elected National Assembly will live out its term with the next president. If the ruling party fails to win, the new president will face a hard time throughout his or her term. That’s why President Roh Tae-woo tried hard to merge three political parties behind him. The impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun by the majority opposition Grand National Party is another classic example.

Although the general election was crucial, it wasn’t a case of win-or-die for the DUP. The party was expected to win easily because President Lee Myung-bak is a lame duck and the government was under fire for the illegal spying and abuse of power scandals. Those factors made the DUP almost unbeatable. But the party popped the Champagne corks way too soon.

The most significant failing was that the party was leaderless. Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook failed to make decisions at crucial moments. A campaigner committed suicide in Gwangju, prompting a controversy over the primary process, and Han was blase. The controversy spread to other districts, and many failed candidates challenged the primary outcomes.

The power of the liberals comes from integrity, but Han failed to see what the problem was. Captivated by the idea that “our side is always right,” Han denied every problem. Asking voters to “shut up and support” the party instead of reflecting on its faults is high-handedness. It is natural that the voters would be enraged by such an attitude.

While the Saenuri Party turned its back on politicians attacked by the media such as Ahn Sang-soo, Na Kyung-won, Jin Seong-ho, Shin Ji-ho and Lee Young-jo, all Han did was remove DUP secretary-general In Jong-seok - and that decision came too late.

After Han ceded her leadership role, the DUP was shaken. It was pushed around by the United Progressive Party. Although concerns were high that the DUP was losing support because of the scandal over Kim Yong-min’s sexist jokes and foul language, Han just said, “I asked him to give up his candidacy but Kim said he wanted to be judged by the voters.” That was a rather irresponsible attitude as the party’s chairwoman.

Kim Ou-joon, a co-host of “Naneun Ggomsuda,” the podcast that Kim Yong-min also hosts, threatened the DUP by saying that the liberals would all die together if Kim gave up his candidacy. The DUP surrendered to the threat. Lee Hae-chan, a senior leader of the party, said the DUP did not demand Kim to resign, while Moon invited podcast fans to Busan to join his campaign. In the end, they all chose to “die together.”

After the podcast hosts held a massive rally at Seoul Plaza and ridiculed their critics, the case became a national topic and their self-righteousness backfired, particularly in the more traditional, elderly communities outside Seoul.

The podcasters’ debacle is not the only factor that shook the DUP. The largest liberal opposition party lost its identity as it was dragged around by the UPP. Although the DUP knew that an anti-Lee Myung-bak campaign was its best strategy based on opinion polls, it also brought up controversial subjects such as its opposition to the free trade agreement with the United States and a plan to build a naval base on Jeju Island. The DUP was dragged around by the UPP, and that proved that it had lost its strategic wits.

After it sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama asking him to change the Korea-U.S. FTA, it belatedly tried to shift its position. That also made the public skeptical about its ability to govern the country.

An alliance is aimed at expanding influence and support. Throughout his political career, the late former President Kim Dae-jung made tireless efforts to include the centrists to overcome the regional barrier of the Jeolla provinces. But this time, the DUP just turned to the left, a move that shrank its support. In Overstressing the liberal identity of candidates during the nomination process, the DUP ruled out all the moderate pragmatists. In the end, the DUP became a party more similar to the UPP, not its former self.

An alliance is a tool. It should be used to gain control. The belief that “our camp is always right” must be halted. That can only happen when a new leadership is established in the DUP. The party has not much time to compete against the so-called “invincible” Park Geun-hye. The DUP once arrogantly said it could win the election without Ahn Cheol-soo - but now the party is in desperate need of recruiting him.

* The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook

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