Korea’s politics of image

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Korea’s politics of image

An interesting article was recently published by the University News Network. The report described the outcome of a survey jointly conducted by 10 university newspapers in Seoul with 9,200 undergraduate students responding. It came as no surprise that Ahn Cheol-soo was ranked the most popular presidential candidate, while Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party came in second and the Saenuri Party’s Park Geun-hye was ranked at the bottom.

But there was a surprise outcome of the survey. The students were asked to rate their favorite five election pledges while the names of the presidential candidates that made them were hidden. In this survey, Park won for three pledges, Moon won for two and Ahn scraped by at the bottom.

Park’s pledges to cut college tuition by half based on family incomes, to shorten military service taking into account national security and to assure college admission based on diversification overwhelmed the pledges of Moon and Ahn.

Where does this paradox come from? The results of the popularity of the three candidates and the survey on their pledges are complete opposites. Is it perhaps because the students are more captivated by the image of the politicians? Are they not making informed, rational judgments?

But unconditional support is not found solely among university students. A similar paradox could be seen in similar surveys done with the elderly.

Park enjoys overwhelming popularity among older voters, but Moon and Ahn actually pledged more benefits to senior citizens. They promised to double the basic old-age pension and make Parents’ Day a national holiday. And yet, the elderly voters are not swayed by their election promises.

When we think about the situation with a cool head, voters in their 20s and 30s should select a candidate who is tightfisted in his or her welfare pledges. Elder voters no longer have the burden of paying taxes. They can just enjoy pensions and welfare benefits larger than what they paid into the systems. The burden is on the young.

If the country has another presidential election like this one, its pension fund and the state health insurance fund will soon be depleted. We have to think about people in Greece and Spain throwing the Molotov cocktails. They are the angry youngsters who are suffering from excess welfare payments. The sugarcoated election pledges of today are nothing more than a deception to use money as we please and later bequeath the debts to our sons and daughters and grandchildren.

Less than a month is left before the presidential election and we all feel frustrated that we have almost no chance to verify the candidates and their visions. But when we approach the situation as political entertainment, the upcoming election is perhaps the most interesting of its kind so far. It was naive to think of Ahn as a political rookie. He managed to skillfully make the public opinion poll outcome a crucial factor in the consolidation of his candidacy with Moon’s. It is almost certain that he wants to have a showdown with Moon through an opinion poll in addition to a one-on-one debate. And while a day is a long time in Korean presidential politics, he may get his wish.

Ahn became a political celebrity after his TV appearances and he is apparently determined to make the consolidation process an audition of sorts. The presidential race has now become a chair-squirming idol show audition, where the host announce, “We’ll come back to you with the result in 60 seconds! Stay tuned, folks!”

There is a joke that politics and dogs share similarities: They both forget who the master is, and come at him with a vengeance. Another punch line says both politics and dogs, when they go crazy, can’t be cured.

The presidential race is like that joke.

Last weekend, the National Assembly decided to allow taxies to use the bus-only lanes. The biggest losers in that decision will be young salaried workers who commute by bus to Seoul from the suburbs.

The politicians also decided to limit the operating hours of large supermarkets. Supposedly that will help mom-and-pop shops. It will also inconvenience young, double-income couples.

The politicians seem to turn blind eyes to the silent majority, while being taken in by a few loud, organized interest groups.

Voters always say they will elect a president based on his or her pledges and character, but that’s nonsense. When they are surveyed about the popularity of a candidate and his or her pledges, the views are completely contradictory. That is our reality. When newspapers analyze the campaign pledges in detail, readers don’t care. They think it’s a pointless exercise.

“You are writing fiction when you say you are analyzing,” one response read. “Reporters always try to complicate things for the sake of their jobs when the real story is actually simple,” another response read.

Two-hundred years ago, Edmund Burke gave a speech to the electors of Bristol. “If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form a hasty opinion evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavor to give it effect,” he said. “I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it, but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life a flatterer you do not wish for.”

He won the election with that speech. If England didn’t have politicians with strong philosophies, and if the voters weren’t capable of selecting such people, we would not have seen the blossoming of British politics.

If Burke were to run in the Korean presidential election, what would have happened to him? He probably would have had no chance among candidates promising pork-barrel welfare benefits from birth to grave.

There is an old saying, “We should look at the feet of a politician, not his mouth.” Maybe all we are seeing these days is a bunch of mouths.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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