[Viewpoint] Ahn’s consolidation conundrum

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[Viewpoint] Ahn’s consolidation conundrum

The presidential election in France has become difficult to foretell. In the first round of his re-election bid, President Nicolas Sarkozy fell short of Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party by 3.3 percentage points. If it were the Korean election system, France would have a new president by now. Sarkozy, however, has one more chance in the final round, which will take place on May 6. Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front won 18.2 percent, finishing the first round in third, and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front won 11.1 percent. For the final round, the voting appears to be divided between the right and the left, but that’s not how the political world works. Policies, public level of trust in each candidate, and strategies and calculations for each political faction are complexly intertwined.

In Korea, merging of the opposition parties is considered a mandatory task to win over the presidency. In 1987, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung learned an important lesson when they failed to unite behind a platform and allowed Roh Tae-woo of the ruling party to win. Since then, the consolidation of factions has proven to be a powerful and necessary force in many elections. But consolidation is not an easy task. Unless the goal is purely to win the election, political parties have far higher political aims to justify such a move.

In the aftermath of the April 11 legislative election, the Democratic United Party faced a pressing need to recruit liberal software mogul and academic Ahn Cheol-soo at all costs. “If I can be used as a positive tool for the society, I can bear the burden, even if it means politics,” Ahn already said, but he has not made a move yet. He will probably act after the first semester is over at Seoul National University, where he currently teaches.

Maybe he is waiting for the DUP to select its candidate. In terms of political engineering, that is the most beneficial move for him. Ahn has enjoyed high popularity in opinion polls, and there is no reason for him to jump into the DUP primary, where he has no established support base.

The scenario of consolidating his candidacy by securing support at the last minute, however, can pose some problems. Ahn needs to create his own support system first. But once a campaign organization is established, it is hard to dismantle it because it will develop its own logic and ideas of operation. Furthermore, a presidential election is a zero-sum game unlike the legislative elections. It will appear absurd for him to set aside his own philosophy and rely solely on the DUP’s platform and policies just to win the presidency.

The method of consolidation will also be tricky. If it were France, they could all run and filter through to the final round, but the system is different in Korea. Right now, public opinion polls would be the only realistic means to decide the candidacy. But the method has already revealed many shortcomings. Kim Heung-guk, a TV personality, wrote in his memoir that the process of consolidating between either Roh Moo-hyun or Chong Mong-joon in the 2002 election - when he supported Chong -?was rigged.

Kim’s account was similar to what happened to the liberal attempt to consolidate candidacies in Gwanak B District during the last legislative election. As we have already seen in April, confidence in the polls was also low.

Another problem lies in what their common goal is. Alliance between candidates with differing political visions will bring about criticism that their merge is a political move. The coalition of three political parties in 1990 and that of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil are two such examples. They were not necessarily alliances to better govern the country, but joint ventures to split up leadership posts.

The two Kims at least had the common goal of ending the military regime and democratizing the country. The liberals may say their common goal is to fight against the Lee Myung-bak administration. But in the latest legislative election, the voters in their 20s complained to the opposition parties that they yearned to hear of future plans and expressed their expectations, the liberal politicians only critically talked of the past. The liberals must keep that in mind.

There is also not much time for Ahn and the DUP to coordinate policies. Ahn is known to have a conservative stance on security issues. What will the DUP do about its alliance with the Unified Progressive Party? Paik Nak-chung, honorary professor of Seoul National University and a mentor of the liberal alliance, has said the Lee government should be held accountable for the sinking of Cheonan. It remains to be seen how Ahn will be able to board the same ship as Paik.

The heaviest burden for Ahn is that he would appear to be avoiding a vetting process that primaries offer. Facing scrutiny is a politician’s duty. Ahn is a well-known figure, but it is a completely different story when talking about the necessary qualities to serve as president. A high ethical standard alone is not enough to decide the highest office of the country.

Ahn’s political stances are hardly known. To ask voters to just trust him and vote for him while he thinks about his governing philosophy is irrational. If he wants to be president, Ahn should at the very least publicly speak of his ideas.

A political leader must be able to promote his vision and policy ideas and inspire the public. It is wrong to ask voters to “shut up and vote” just because he is highly popular and has few known shortcomings. The faster Ahn makes up his mind, the better chance he will have in the upcoming December presidential election.

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

by Kim Jin-kook
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