Is it 1987 all over again?

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Is it 1987 all over again?

From most of the media in Seoul this summer and autumn, there has been a noticeable lack of comparisons between the electoral picture of 2012 and that of 1987. I find this quite surprising given the seriousness of the topic. Although this year’s presidential election in Korea has important differences from the one in 1987, there are some significant parallels as well. We need to look at both for a clearer understanding of Korean politics and where the country is likely to go in the foreseeable future.

The June 1987 protests that brought out students, housewives, professionals, and workers alike effectively ended Chun Doo Hwan’s authoritarian rule and began the dismantling of military dictatorship. With the 1988 Olympics looming, Roh Tae-woo made a very shrewd move; he agreed to the widespread demands for direct, popular elections of the presidency as well as restoration of other civil liberties. This acceptance on his part brought him considerable goodwill and respect from Koreans as a whole.

In addition, the opposition politicians and parties from that period were caught by surprise and unprepared to join forces to defeat the candidate for the ruling camp, the Democratic Justice Party. The opposition parties were adamantly divided between Kim Young-sam’s Unification Democratic Party and Kim Dae-jung’s Party for Peace and Democracy. One of them was supposed to have dropped out and endorsed the other; neither politician budged.

The results were predictable. Retired general Roh won with a plurality of 34 percent while Kim Young-sam got 28 percent and Kim Dae-jung received 27 percent. Kim Young-sam would join the ruling party in 1990 and the remaining opposition would have to wait until the 1997 Asian financial crisis before its first candidate was elected (Kim Dae-jung) to the presidency. With Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the progressives would hold on to the Blue House for 10 years before Lee Myung-bak’s win and a return to conservative administration.

Fast forward to 2012 and we can see that Korea has transformed itself into a vibrant, modern state, with democratic institutions, OECD membership and now 20-50 club status. Although President Lee’s record of accomplishment is mixed, he seems to be leaving with a somewhat mediocre approval rating, though higher than that of his immediate predecessor.

Yet none of the three major parties seem able to capitalize on the discontent against the current chief executive. The ruling conservative Saenuri, the main liberal opposition Democratic United Party and the now-virtually-disintegrated and far left Unified Progressive Party have been in disarray and burdened with corruption. Most of these ethical lapses or legal infractions involve vote-buying or rigging the nomination procedures for legislative seats to the National Assembly.

There is not a clear or simple answer to these issues, but I find it rather curious that few have mentioned proposals to require all candidates for each party to be completely chosen be the general public in a primary election. This is probably due to two factors: first, Korea has no real experience with a federal system allowing substantial local and regional autonomy; second, the current crop of senior party politicians are reluctant to let go of the power they’ve held over the nomination process since the founding of the republic.

So now we’ve got three major candidates for the presidency. Park Geun-hye is the first female presidential candidate from a major party, and also the daughter of the country’s most controversial leader. Moon Jae-in, a protege of Roh Moo-hyun, is from the major established liberal party, and would proceed along the path of the liberal presidents’ decade. The wild card is Ahn Cheol-soo, a progressive, but an independent one outside the usual party channels, and one who lacks a traditional power base. However, his support from the younger generation is enormous.

One prediction can be safely made. If Ahn and Moon fail to compromise and unify the left, Park will win with a plurality and become the country’s first female president. This will prolong conservative rule in the republic, for better or worse.

If the left-of-center does come together, how is it going to happen? What will be the respective roles for Moon and Ahn? Some have suggested Moon as the compromise standard-bearer for the progressives. Ahn could become the prime minister with the caveat that the such duties and powers are going to be expanded at the expense of the president’s. Some of these shifts could be realized through informal consensus; others will necessitate revisions in the law after both have assumed office.

Even if senior DUP members and the core supporters of Ahn refrain from discussing this matter publicly, they must be aware of the implications. A failure to compromise within the progressive camp will show Koreans that liberal politicians are incapable of doing what’s best for the nation. Therefore, the Saenuri Party is going to stand on the higher moral ground.

Either way, there will be some political firsts as the new administration is inaugurated in February. If Park Geun-hye moves into the Blue House again, but as president this time, she will be expected to offer some help improving the status of women, particularly within the management circles of the various chaebol. If the Moon-Ahn team comes to power, negotiation and compromise will need to be sustained for effective governance.

Several weeks remain before the Dec. 19 election. Nonetheless, if the progressives are to be considered credible, mature and trustworthy, the advisers and aides from the two left-of-center candidates should remember the intransigence of the two Kims - and their supporters - from 1987. This assumes Moon and Ahn do not want to lose by default. Some candor, flexibility and humility would go a long way toward resolving this rivalry and dispute.

* The author is a professor at Hanyang University’s Graduate School of International Studies.

by Joseph Schouweiler
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