The question of vision

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The question of vision

The heat is on in the political field with the presidential election now less than six months away. The veteran journalists’ association Kwanhun Club invited aspiring candidates for a debate to offer a kind of preview on what can we expect from president-hopefuls once the curtain goes up. And from what we have seen, it is disappointingly a déjà vu. Representative Moon Jae-in, the most formidable candidate from the main opposition Democratic United Party, attacked his key rival Park Geun-hye from the ruling Saenuri Party for being at the “core of protracted dictatorship he had been fighting against” during his younger days. Representative Chung Moon-joon from the same Saenuri Party also played up the theme of “Yushin” — the October Restoration under the rule of President Park Chung Hee — which was imposed on the nation 11 years after the military general ascended to presidency in a 1961 coup.Park is the late president’s daughter who acted as first lady after her mother was assassinated. “Industrialization and modernization was instrumental in extending [your father’s] dictatorial rule,” Chung said, challenging his party rival Park to express her thoughts on her father’s 18-year-long iron rule.

Park’s background does not allow her to be free from the past of the military regime. But if history dogs her throughout the race, the presidential election will turn into a contest of the past. Do we seriously need to debate the past, having come this far in democratic and economic development? Selecting new leadership to steer the country through tough times is too important to be wasted on water under the bridge.

The ongoing economic plight in Europe and the United States is largely blamed on a lack of strong leadership. Individualism is prized under a democracy. Individual choices amount to a powerful current. It is why political leaders rely so much on opinion polls and individual voters. The constantly connected members of the social networking generation broadcast their minds on mobile and digital platforms, stifling politicians with a wave of opinion. In the democratic lexicon, individualism eclipses authority. Standing up against authority has been honored as virtuous and courageous. Student activists and dissidents who fought for democracy and against oppression have thrived on the creed of individualism.

But an individual alone does not have power. An individual needs the medium of power to accomplish something. Authoritarian power was underscored during the Yushin age driven by the national goal to pull the country out of poverty and modernize the economy. Under the magnified goal, individual values were largely demonized. The democracy was at risk then, but paradoxically is no better off today. Unlike the past, it is not because individuals are suppressed, but because authority has lost its power. Political leaders have failed to lead and are instead swayed by the individual populace. Our challenge is to muster individual forces while practicing democracy, which can come from leadership. Selecting someone with leadership skills to marshal scattered individual forces should be the deciding factor in the upcoming presidential election.

We should focus on the future. The best alternative the critics of neoliberalism have is social capitalism. Both the ruling and opposition candidates cry out for extended social benefits, but the details are a contest of who should take a larger burden of the cost. One vision is inventing a system to propel new growth and vitalize the society as well as promoting morality awareness to build a healthier community. It is a future where each individual can feel good and motivated in their everyday lives. We must pick a leader who can deliver such a vision.

We could re-examine Park under the measure of leadership and vision. She has been consistent in upholding her convictions, demonstrating empirical leadership. At least she wasn’t someone easily swayed by popular opinion. But her stigma from the past is sending the other contenders to run backwards as well. As long as she cannot be separated from the past, we cannot envision a future for her. Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of Seoul National University graduate school, could be the best fit for the visionary role. He is yet to join the political ring or expound on his vision. But politics is about symbolism. Ahn has surfaced as a political dark horse because he came to personify future values. He is a self-made entrepreneur who practices philanthropy of riches as well as intelligence and connects with the young. His persona and what he represents has given them hope.

Ahn said he is liberal on economic issues and conservative on the security front. There is no reason he should be paired with the opposition. Can our imagination not be extended to match Ahn and Park? Why are politics so confined to stereotypical conventions? It may be a far-fetched idea from the viewpoint of power. But if we move our focus beyond the power game we may discover the seeds for a creative order. This country could leap forward if it undergoes such a creative evolution. Let’s continue to dream.

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