Candidates require a vision

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Candidates require a vision

It is the year to pick a president for the next five years, but so far we haven’t had a good crop of candidates. I wonder if the street talk - that it won’t matter who wins the race - has reached the ears of the three leading presidential candidates. Of course the differences will be significant depending on who actually becomes the president. It’s just that people no longer place much hope in any of the candidates.

An overall image, policies and vision are what we look for in the candidates auditioning for our top leadership role. The three candidates we now have present themselves in an overly narrow or hollow way. The crews behind them are recycled old faces without much in common or a strong identity. Their platforms are more or less the same, grandiose but at the same time essentially inarticulate. All three lack vision.

The three candidates have failed to present any dramatic new symbolism in a race that should be dynamic. They cannot entirely avoid cliches, but still none has delivered a memorable speech. We have yet to hear any short yet strong or inspirational message. They have failed to read what the voters want and try to personify the spirit of the times. They merely read their lines and stammer away when asked to improvise.

Park Geun-hye, candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party, cannot get beyond the troubled legacy of her father, former autocrat President Park Chung Hee. Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party cannot shake off the shadow of his political mentor President Roh Moo-hyun. The audience does not ask them to deny their pasts, but to get beyond them. Yet they cannot. Ahn Cheol-soo, the independent candidate, is trapped with a one-note image centered on public disgust with politics. He needs to make the public’s desires - not just its disgust - his own, but somehow he just can’t live up to the expectations.

The cast and crew on their campaigns offer poor guidance as to what the candidates are capable of and what their governing performance will be like. Moon was first to build his camp. But he does not present the confidence or persona of a great leader. Ahn is the most discombobulated. He has disappointed many with his consistent ambiguity about everything. Park Geun-hye is drowning in abundance. She has so many people around her she’s unclear who are her real people. That’s the downside of being a career presidential candidate.

Good recruiting and casting does not ensure “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Ahn Kang-min, former head of the central investigation unit of the prosecution who spearheaded investigations of slush funds of former presidents, was handpicked to lead the committee reviewing and nominating candidates for the legislative election in 2008 to bring in some neutrality amid rivaling pro-President Lee Myung-bak and pro-Park Geun-hye factions. He tried to do what was best in order not to jeopardize the election, but the result was a deepening of the factional schism. A few excellent members cannot change the whole production. At the end of the day, it is up to the leading performers.

What matters is policy and vision. It is hard to differentiate the recycled and copied platforms of the three candidates. They sing the same tune about welfare, economic equality, polarization and unity. What they are delivering is noise, not vision.

The themes are hardly new. They dominate the global scene amid a prolonged downturn and are the logical fallout of our country’s dizzy pace of industrialization and democratization over the last half century. How they plan to address these complicated and intricate problems would be the vision that is lacking.

There are constraints, of course.

First, the government must not risk its public finance. Social welfare programs must be prioritized within an affordable range. A specific social class may have to sacrifice. Moreover, external circumstances may not work in a favorable way.

There is no easy way to overcome these obstacles. Most urgent is a new paradigm to generate growth. The past model will no longer work. We relied on exports to compensate for our limited scales in territory, natural resources and population. But we must break down territorial and human restrictions and allow others to come in and invest and live in our land to broaden and bolster domestic demand.

Is assistance to children of broken and poor families urgent in a society in which violent criminals are being generated? Should cutting university tuition and making school meals free come first? Is increasing welfare benefits for senior citizens a life-and-death problem? Can they do all these at once?

Why do we envy Singapore when we have China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations as neighbors? Why do we import workers and wives from Southeast Asian countries and not succeed in luring international schools, hospitals, corporations, and research institutes into the country? Can we solve wealth polarization and welfare costs without increasing jobs? This may not be the best of ideas. But candidates should describe a big picture of what kind of country they can create. To talk of a society where all people live in equality and peace is as lame as saying you will get full eventually if you put food in your stomach. Who should we pick on election day? That is the question.

* The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil
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