A dangerous political experimentMoon Jae-in, the presidential candidate of the largest opposition Democratic United Party, talked about the common sense of “responsible politics.” And the party chairman, Lee Hae-chan, strongly supported it with sharp offensives. “It is impossible for a president with no party affiliation to run the country,” Lee said.
Ahn Cheol-soo, independent candidate, refuted. “When the ruling party wins again, time will just pass with their pushy attitude. If the opposition party wins, the president’s party will be the minority in the legislature and his term won’t get anything done. If that’s the case, it is more than possible for a president with no party affiliation to respect both sides and persuade them to run the country,” he said.
Ahn’s obsession about his independent candidacy has become critical, and it is now impossible for him to reverse his position. “I have crossed the bridge of no return and burned it after crossing,” Ahn said, and that became true. An independent president, of course, can run the country, but the issue is whether he can do it well or not, because the success — or the failure — of a president is part of the country’s destiny.
Ahn’s idea about a president with no party ties shows the image of a conflict mediator. That image goes beyond party affiliations. The National Assembly often faces fierce confrontations between the ruling and opposition parties and subsequent deadlocks and Ahn’s intention is to mediate them. That approach is a very important virtue of a leader.
But having no ties to a political party is not a precondition of leadership. When the president is a member of the ruling party, but still communicates, listens to the opinions of the opposition parties and cooperates to run the country together and makes concessions, true bipartisan leadership can be seen. That will produce politics that reach the public.
The president with no party affiliation has limited room to maneuver and he will stand on a third, middle ground. Mediation is a process of persuading others to concede, but it won’t be easy for him to persuade the ruling party or the largest opposition party. Policies will lose the driving force and it will be wasteful governance. That is far from resolute leadership. An independent will fail for having no influence over any party. The image of an independent candidate and the actual reality are different.
The driving force of governance will also shape the identity of an administration. The leadership of a president with a party affiliation is predictable, but an independent president’s policy identity is unclear. He can easily fall into the trap of populism when the identity is ambiguous, and the policy will lose its consistency. Consistency is the key for the public to trust leadership.
Under the current Constitution, Korea has a single, five-year-term presidency and important elections take place during a president’s term. The local election and the legislative election take place every four years, and they are the mid-term evaluation of a president. The performances of a president will be graded with how well the ruling party did in the elections. The midterm evaluation will make the president stay awake.
There is, however, no way to evaluate an independent president in the middle of his term. The people won’t have a means to hold him responsible. It has nothing to do with the candidacy consolidation competition between Moon and Ahn, because the president holds the largest responsibility in governance. Whether they will form a coalition government or split power, that won’t change. A president with no party affiliation can easily become a president with no responsibility.
Representative Song Ho-chang left the Democratic United Party recently and joined Ahn’s campaign. Song is a first-term lawmaker and the DUP nominated him for the Uiwang and Gwacheon districts in Gyeonggi without a primary. After only 40 days of campaigning, he was elected as a lawmaker. His quick success is the envy of others who campaigned for years to get elected.
Song is known as a “candlelight lawyer.” His victory was based on the DUP campaign to urge voters to hand down a judgment on the Lee Myung-bak administration. Song is a beneficiary of party politics and his defection to join the campaign of an independent candidate is ridiculous.
Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. A Peruvian who once ran in the presidential election, he said “You cannot eradicate politics from life. Even if you think politics is, in many cases, a disgusting, dirty activity.”
The National Assembly is politics. No matter how dirty, disgusting it is, we cannot exclude it from people’s lives. The National Assembly prepares the support mechanism for their livelihood.
The psychological state of a president is unique. Once he enters the Blue House, he wants to stand on the position that transcends everything. He will want to go beyond the legislature to run the country. But that will make him stand at a distance from the public sentiment, because the legislature is the channel of the people’s voices. An independent president will fall into that trap more easily. President Lee has faced many frustrations in interior affairs because he ignored the legislature.
A president must work together with the legislature. When the ruling party is the minority, the president must pay more attention to the opposition parties and make them partners of state affairs. That’s the starting point for the new politics that the people have desired. The answer for political innovation is already out there.
Ahn’s campaign is reinforcing the argument that an independent president can be successful. It is an experiment, but it lacks audacity and precision. His arguments seem to come from here and there to fit the format. He gives the impression that he made the argument hastily in order to attract the voters distrustful of the political parties. That’s why we cannot feel the seriousness and sincerity in the argument.