Ahn’s communication gapAhn Cheol-soo has despised politics. He has denounced it in the political arena, defining himself as the savior of a new type of politics. He prefers non-political language - “future” is a term he frequently uses, and “hope, goodwill and sincerity” are also often rolling off his tongue. His way of challenging politics and his selection of words strengthen his image as a man outside of the conventional order.
Ahn also tried to express his determination. “I want to accept the tasks of this period of time,” he has said. But he made sure to adjust his words so that he wouldn’t look too determined. He tried to hide his ambition, while keeping it simple.
Ahn’s presidential bid shows his sense of diction. A presidential election is often a war of words, and how to use them convincingly can often decide a winner. Choi Sang-yong, Korea University’s honorary professor, is a mentor to Ahn. It is his long-held belief that politics is a “marriage between words and timing,” and his role will likely be refining Ahn’s language during the campaign.
It appeared that Ahn’s decision to enter the presidential race had been polished for a long time. He appeared to have focused his investments in selecting and refining the language of ambition. That shows that Ahn had decided to run in the race a long time ago.
When the words are polished and decorated, the power of emotional politics grows further. But it will lack vision and substance.
Perhaps because of this, Ahn’s “new politics” in fact has nothing new. “Change, the people’s desires, political reform, policy competition and a ‘livelihood’ economy” are parts of his platform. They are extremely familiar terms. And they are also the terms often used by the third candidate in an election. Rhee In-je (1997), Chung Mong-joon (2002) and Moon Kook-hyun (2007) used the exact same terms when they announced their presidential bids.
Ahn ended his speech by quoting a famous author, William Gibson: “The future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It is also a hackneyed method to end a speech with a quote from refined literature.
“When politics change, then our life can change,” Ahn said. It is a model statement, but cliched political rhetoric. Innovation cannot be achieved through determination alone.
He then presented conditions for consolidating the candidacy with his liberal rival Moon Jae-in from the Democratic United Party. “The true change and innovation of the political arena” and “the people’s agreement” are his two conditions. They are for Moon. Ahn’s words are again ambiguous and tactful. The ambiguity first creates a shield for him. But the approach contains a very serious problem because Ahn has forgotten his positioning.
Ahn is now a politician. Whether he operates a political party or keeps the independent status, he is a main player in politics. He also has the responsibility and duty to reform politics. Before demanding changes of his rivals, he must realize his “new politics.” And yet, he spoke as if he is an observer. That shows arrogance and misunderstanding. Ahn is also a subject of national evaluation. The public will decide whether Ahn’s politics are actually innovative or another version of business as usual.
“Negative campaigning is the worst form of business-as-usual politics,” Ahn said, and he is right. But negative campaigning and verification are two different things. Scrutiny of a candidate is a process to track down and confirm his or her leadership skills, life experiences and character. It is necessary because a president’s success is the country’s success. Vetting a candidate’s leadership is necessary because it is the voters’ right to know. It is a privilege that cannot be conceded and also a key process of an election.
Ahn said he will “faithfully answer to all legitimate scrutiny.” The first topic will be the controversy surrounding his purchase of development rights of an apartment. In his book, he wrote that “I have lived in the jeonse [rental housing deposit] housing for a long time, so I understand the hardship of not owning a house.”
And yet, it was belatedly revealed that he had purchased development rights in a shanty town when he was a graduate student at the Seoul National University College of Medicine.
Most of the people who experience the hardships of not owning a house are the working-class voters and those who are entirely disappointed with today’s conventional politics. They are the people for whom Ahn promised to work during the announcement of his presidential bid.
Politics is about trust. The new form of politics is the politics of trust. Distrust in politics comes from a politician’s lies and inconsistent words and actions. The controversy surrounding Ahn’s purchase of the development rights fuels doubts that his words and behaviors are inconsistent. Ahn has not responded to the issue yet, and his spokesman only gave a short explanation.
This controversy is something that Ahn can avoid. A president cannot run the country alone. His strategists, aides and mentors are important influences. At the press conference, Ahn’s people accompanied him. Lee Hun-jae, former prime minister known as Ahn’s economic tutor, also joined the event.
Ahn has pledged to practice “politics from the heart” and that will mean true communication with the people. The competitive power of his image is communication, but he, in fact, has been extremely selective when he communicates with the public.
He has been unilateral and he also uses political engineering. Ahn has selected what he wants to share with the people and delivers only that. The “new politics” of Ahn should begin with changing his way of communicating with the public.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon