[Viewpoint] Who changes first will decideRepresentative Chung Doo-un of the ruling Saenuri Party is nicknamed “a pointer,” a hunting dog famous for locating and signaling prey. The outspoken reformist almost lost his neck in the recent legislative election. He won by a slim margin of 625 votes from Seodaemun B District in downtown Seoul against his rival from the Democratic United Party.
Chung said, “It was a closer call than the election after the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun. At the time, I was prepared because I had people throwing things and swearing at me. But this time, I didn’t even see it coming.”
The headwind by liberal forces and young voters had been strong in the capital. “No one can now be assured of wins except in Gyeongsang and Jeolla,” he added.
The conservatives are no longer safe in the three rich southern neighborhoods of the Gangnam District. They waged a tough contest in Bundang, the satellite suburban district. Chung envies Yangpyeong, Icheon, and Gwangju Counties of Gyeonggi. His colleague Choung Byoung-gug easily won at Yangpyeong despite his close relationship with President Lee.
The Saenuri Party also secured seats in Icheon and Gwangju without difficulty. They have a large population of senior citizens in the satellite cities, among which many are from wealthy families from Seoul.
The latest election underscored campaign leader Park Geun-hye’s “strategy of perseverance.” She demonstrated artful shrewdness and politicking. In the mean time, the opposition party erred by chasing controversial issues. It abandoned its own policy on building a naval base in Jeju and instead campaigned hard against it.
The DUP won three seats from Jeju, but lost big in larger constituencies in northern Gyeonggi and Gangwon that share borders with North Korea. The residents lambasted the main opposition for making fools out of those who lived with military troops over 60 years.
A telephone opinion poll reported the approval rating of the Saenuri Party at 28 percent from Jinhae, Changwon in southern Gyeongsang. But vote counts for Saenuri in the constituency doubled at 58.6 percent. Navy soldiers and their families got revenge for the comment from the liberal camp calling the naval base a home ground for pirates.
Popular satirical podcast “Naneum Ggomsuda” (“I am a Petty-Minded Creep”) host Kim Ou-joon has hit the nail on the head. In his recent book, he wrote, “Through an election, politicians redeem the debt they have placed in the hearts of the people.” Former President Roh Moo-hyun, who lost many elections, was finally repaid by society - big time - when he became president. The Roh loyalists who went into self-imposed exile were revived from the feeling of public indebtedness toward Roh’s tragic death.
Park Geun-hye may have benefited from the same logic. The public may have felt an obligation to reward Park in some way for her pain from the tragic deaths of her father, former President Park Chung Hee, and mother and also might have reacted with a sense of betrayal from the government in its overthrow of campaign pledges on Sejong City and the new airport in the southern region.
The Internet is still buzzing with under-40 voters raging against the election outcome. Their anger comes from the frustration that the liberal forces have lost what should have been an easy contest against the lame-duck government and ruling party. Some joke about cutting allowances for their parents, suggesting resentment against their parent generation who blindly supports the conservative party.
The rage may explode in the December presidential election. Voters may now feel they have shaken off any sense of obligation to Park through the recent election. The Saenuri Party was able to secure a majority thanks to the single-member district electoral system.
The conservatives and liberals will likely continue to race neck and neck. Once the main opposition forms a strong leadership and does not flop badly, it still has a chance to change the political wind in its favor ahead of the presidential election.
The Saenuri Party did well in its casting of young political novices - outspoken, Harvard graduate Lee Jun-seok picked by Park as a member of the emergency council, and Sohn Su-jo, the 27-year-old female candidate nominated to run against liberal big shot and promising presidential candidate Moon Jae-in.
The young members of the opposition camp, in contrast, mostly drew controversy for scandalous comments or behavior. From the performance so far, the conservatives would be better off leaning more left and turning to younger members.
Since the election, Saenuri has quickly returned to its old habits. It has been sidestepping public outrage against elected candidates whose ethics are questionable.
The race for the December presidential election may already have started. Who changes first and how much could be the deciding factor.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho