Clear the uncertainty quicklyWith 51 days left until the Dec. 19 presidential election, Korea’s political landscape is still shrouded in mist. The uncertainty over whether the main opposition Democratic United Party’s candidate Moon Jae-in and independent contender Ahn Cheol-soo would agree to the fielding of a single candidate representing the liberal camp - and if they did, when and how - has rarely been seen in elections in other developed countries.
But this is not without precedent in Korean politics. The same narrative unfolded in 1997, when Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil consolidated about 40 days before the election, and in 2002, when Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon did so 20 days before the election. Some pundits expect it to occur even after the Nov. 25-26 deadline for the official registration of presidential candidates.
However, the candidate unification card causes many unwanted side effects. After Moon and Ahn decide to consolidate their candidacies, their commitments must change accordingly. The two candidates still confront each other over political reform, with Moon strongly opposing Ahn’s ideas, including a radical slashing of the president’s appointment rights, the number of legislators, government subsidies for presidential contestants and the role of a central party in the political establishment. Moreover, both candidates may likely adopt a “third way” as a compromise, as seen by the two Kims’ shocking commitment in 1997 to a constitutional amendment for a parliamentary system.
Prolonging the unifying process puts policy-oriented campaigns on the back burner. While the U.S. election is focused on such issues as jobs, growth and welfare, Korea’s is overshadowed by the question of whether, when and how the two candidates would merge their candidacies. Ahn even refuses to hold an interview with the press, not to mention televised debates. In the meantime, the ruling Saenuri Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, opposes a three-way TV debate, citing that her rival camps have yet to begin the final race.
Fielding a single candidate from the opposition camp is an expedient way to win an election. But if it happens here again, the sooner the better. Given Ahn’s plan to offer a comprehensive set of platforms Nov. 10 or thereabouts, we can hardly expect any talk of fielding a single candidate until then. When they decide to merge, they should not resort to a popularity poll as the destiny of the main opposition party - or the country, for that matter - cannot be determined simply by a margin of error.