Ahn Cheol-soo reduxI couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the words of Ahn Cheol-soo on Monday disbanding his campaign, thanking and bidding farewell to supporters who accompanied him on the short journey in the presidential race. His words of much-awaited support and endorsement for Moon Jae-in - candidate of the main opposition Democratic United Party with whom he discussed forging a joint front against conservative and ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye - were as simple and lukewarm as in the press conference 10 days ago when he suddenly announced a breakup of the talks and dropped out of the race.
At that time, Ahn said, “Moon is the unified candidate and please support him.” Now he added again some ambiguous comment: “I believe my supporters will understand my will.” He then criticized both the ruling and opposition for going against public will in their last stretch of the campaign.
Maybe he was being careful because he would be violating election law for publicly expressing support for Moon. But whatever the reasons may be, his words fell far short of the DUP expectations. We can, in fact, read between the lines that Ahn is no longer associated with Moon and won’t sacrifice himself as a stepping stone for his victory.
The DUP, which on the surface said it was pleased with Ahn, would be feeling the opposite inside. It is hardly in a position to plead for Ahn to do more. The party coerced Ahn into talks to integrate through outside mediators, and once he was in, it more or less pushed him around as a new kid on the block. It also annoyed Ahn’s side by calling back DUP head Lee Hae-chan - whom Ahn and his people blamed for ruining the talks - into the camp right after Ahn walked out.
Until the end, Moon and Ahn remained poles apart on security and North Korea. Moon dashed hopes for renewing his partnership with Ahn by publicly saying he will personally see to grooming Ahn Hee-jung, governor of South Chungcheong from the lineage of former President Roh Moo-hyun, as a next-generation political leader.
The DUP, having sensed it went too far, has avoided referring to Ahn and former presidents Park Chung Hee and Roh since last weekend. Last week, it planned a rally in front of the Sejong Cultural Center in downtown Seoul in hopes that Ahn would stop by after he disbanded his election campaign. The schedule was canceled because a man attempted suicide on top of the building of Ahn’s campaign headquarters, protesting his resignation. On Monday, the party also carefully arranged a rally near Ahn’s campaign office in hopes he would appear. But he didn’t show up.
The people who were familiar with both sides compared the campaigns of the two when explaining Ahn’s defeat in the negotiations. Moon’s campaign carries a tense and war-like air. The people in the campaign are focused and grave as if assembling firebombs for a major demonstration. The party that has tasted both the sweetness of power and frustration of defeat is hanging on in the campaign with life-or-death desperation. Ahn may have fallen prey to its killer instinct.
Ahn’s camp on the other hand was like a relaxed salon for civilized liberal intelligentsia. Most were lawyers, doctors and scholars who studied abroad. Volunteers from civilian groups were starry-eyed as if they were doing charity work. Ahn’s camp lost in eagerness and desperation.
Ahn’s exit also had not been entirely noble or graceful. He said he decided to drop out of the race to “keep his promise to the people” that he would take responsibility if the merger talks break down, as if he was forced toward the door. The speech he delivered at a ceremony to disband the campaign camp brimmed with ambiguities.
It may be because he still needs to think like a businessman. He said he has burned the bridges he crossed to indicate he was not going back to his life before his foray into politics. AhnLab, the company he founded, runs its business primarily by selling antivirus software. It fought with portal site operator Naver for providing software for free in 2007, accusing it of trying to kill small companies. The company’s viability would be at stake if he provokes the potential new government.
Ahn likes to divide what is sensible and what is not. But he often strayed from this sensible path during his brief political journey. Despite a majority support rate of over 50 percent ahead of the Seoul mayoral election, he stepped aside for a lesser known candidate with a mere 5 percent approval rating.
This time too, he unilaterally announced he was ending negotiations with the DUP and also walked out of the race without prior notice. Instead of a much-awaited endorsement to unite votes for what he referred to as the single candidate for the liberal camp, Ahn spent more words in his departure speech calling for “new politics” as if he was running for a new position.
The presidential race is now winding down to a two-way contest between Park and Moon. Since the first direct presidential election in 1987, the front-runner in polls after registration always ended up winning. Whether Moon can reverse the tide and make new history may rely on Ahn’s final surprise or his performance in the last televised debate.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho