[Viewpoint] A ho-hum election

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[Viewpoint] A ho-hum election

We may not like to admit it, but we are extremely jaded about the upcoming presidential election. Both the ruling and opposition parties are faring poorly in attracting anything like excited attention. People usually get excited, either positively or negatively, as they study and weigh the words and actions of presidential candidates. But this year, there’s not a trace of enthusiasm about this campaign. We can hardly expect the outcome of the election - a new president, whomever it is - to fix the rifts in our society and bring about unity.

The recent primary of the ruling Saenuri Party and the lead-up to the primary for the main opposition Democratic United Party are expected only to heighten public skepticism.

The Saenuri Party’s primary, which unsurprisingly elected Park Geun-hye as the presidential candidate, took place with half the public interest and enthusiasm that we saw five years ago. Park’s acceptance speech, promising sweeping reforms and a better nation to live in, hardly came across as sincere considering the ongoing investigation of party members who bought nominations in the last legislative election under Park’s own leadership. Her grand promises of working for national unity also sounded hollow and mechanical.

The DUP is no better. The main opposition party has a crucial role in a democracy in keeping the ruling party on its toes and informing the public of its misdeeds. But today’s opposition fails disastrously in that area. Whether it can keep up any public interest through its Jeju convention is yet to be seen. From its performance so far, we cannot expect the DUP to field a contender as formidable as Park of the ruling party. How it will deal with Ahn Cheol-soo, the undeclared dark horse from the liberal camp, is probably the strongest variable in the upcoming election.

The presidential race so far remains on the margin of our attention, falling short of attracting the attention of the broader population. Public interest is fizzling out even before the match has started with players on both sides failing to draw an audience and supporters.

A democracy should provide voters the chance to participate in policy making through their choices at the ballot box. The presidential elections of the past in 1997, 2002, and 2007 widened the spectrum of public choice. We were invited to choose a candidate from the ruling or opposition according to our political tastes.

This year’s election menu is meager, poorly prepared and dull. It is not a contest in the traditional sense of the ruling party versus the opposition. We may be forced to make a reluctant political judgment on a not very attractive choice.

There are two explanations for the extreme cynicism. One is the prolonged uncertainty of Ahn joining the upcoming race and the other is the vague difference between the ruling and opposition party candidates.

People are less interested in choosing between the contenders from the ruling and opposition. Instead they are kept in suspension wondering if fresh and politically inexperienced Ahn will join the race and if he can challenge a candidate from a traditional political background. But we must not fall into the fallacy of making a positive judgment on the basis of novelty. The so-called Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon - the allure of an independent untainted by the main, traditional parties and their business-as-usual politics - must be overcome and party politics restored.

When it comes down to deciding who can best reinvigorate our politics, unite polarized public opinion and bring competence to governance - Park, a DUP candidate or Ahn - we are still at a loss.

People are intrigued by the persona of Ahn, a doctor-turned-software-mogul-turned-professor and would-be politician. But his approachability and personal charm may not entirely help his political career. Unlike most other behaviors, political caliber is weighed on a different scale. That is why people like Ahn, but nevertheless are unsure about his political ability. It is therefore hard to judge the sustainability of the Ahn phenomenon.

But such a political judgment, which could change the direction of the country’s future, hangs in the air because Ahn has yet to make a decision whether to join politics. We cannot wait around for Ahn to make up his mind.

For now, it is up to the two political parties. They must reinvent themselves and start appealing to the public. Otherwise Park cannot be assured of a win and the DUP candidate cannot survive any contest.

What is important in the upcoming presidential election is not the contest between the ruling and opposition camps, or who among the two party candidates are best for the presidency. What to watch out for is whether either of the two has the capacity to win over a public swept up by the novelty and untraditional appeal of Ahn.

Ahn must answer the public’s demand and decide whether he plans to remain as a lionized cypher or become a real politician for the people. His decision may change the cynical and dispassionate mood of the campaign as well as the path of Korean society.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a political and foreign affairs professor of Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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