TV debate, awkward indeed

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TV debate, awkward indeed

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Presidential candidates of three political parties held their first TV debate earlier this week. The reviews were mostly skeptical. Instead of a widely expected showdown between ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye and main opposition rival Moon Jae-in, the debate ended up being a bitter and testy confrontation between two female contestants while Moon watched awkwardly from the sidelines.

“While the No. 1 female contestant fought with No. 3, the No. 2 male contestant was left alone to entertain himself,” one blogger wrote in parody of the debate for a popular matchmaking TV program. Another summed up the performers like this: “coarse” Lee Jung-hee of the far-left Unified Progressive Party, “self-conscious” Park Geun-hye and onlooker Moon Jae-in. It was a cat fight between an overzealous former student activist and a reserved, conservative political nobility. Moon was the odd man in the middle.

TV debates among presidential candidates are still new in Korea. Although the American-style TV debate was first proposed in 1992, it began for the first time in 1997, making this year the fourth round. Ruling party candidate Kim Young-sam insisted that all registered candidates participate in the debate for equal opportunity to prove themselves on nationwide TV. The so-called fair trial never took place because it would only be a debate in name if all eight candidates were on TV at the same time.

When the first TV debate aired in 1997, the interest was so high that there were few people on the streets. It was a showdown between Lee Hoi-chang of the ruling party, Kim Dae-jung of the main opposition and Rhee In-je of the central-right. Kwon Young-ghil of the left-wing Democratic Labor Party could not get in, but finally got his wish in his second bid for presidency five years later.

By then regulations were eased so that a candidate from a political party who won more than 5 percent of the vote in the legislative election was eligible to participate. Kwon got his revenge by attacking the conservative Grand National Party as the “original corrupt party” and the Democratic Party as the “start-up corrupt party.”

TV debates now have become part of the campaign program. But the audience and voters are still unsure of whether they are good or not since all they have seen so far are mediocre debates. A good debate should have a competent orator that delivers his or her point straight and passionately without appearing too aggressive.

Kim Dae-jung was a veteran speaker. Having tried for the presidential office several times, he called himself a “prepared” president. In earlier debates, he naturally shone among his rivals. But he paled in later debates. Some even think he may not have won if the election took place soon after the debates.

During a debate to select a single candidate for the ruling party in 2002, tall and confident Chung Mong-joon, son of Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung, scored more against Roh Moo-hyun. But Roh ended up as the candidate for the liberal camp.

TV debates can influence voters’ minds. Television became the decisive medium in U.S. presidential politics after the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy, young, handsome, eloquently-speaking political upstart, came off well. He made his opponent look like a snobbish, touchy old bore. If not for the television, Nixon would have moved into the White House eight years earlier than he eventually did.

Experts say the key to winning TV debates is the demonstration of presidential quality. But what exactly is presidential quality? Voters would believe the candidate they support best fits the description. One tends to be judgmental, agreeing with those who are congruous to his or her belief and disagreeing with those who are not. Personality also matters. Candidates today have become more confident on TV than their predecessors. They have been better trained.

They go through mock debates over and over. Still, they err, but can make amends in subsequent rounds. It is how President Barack Obama scored against his Republican contestant Mitt Romney in the recent election debate.

TV debates no longer wield as much influence. Still, many still watch them as they can play judge for a group audition. The latest TV debate was valuable in the fact that it helped to eliminate the most inappropriate candidate to run for president of South Korea who called her nation “the South” as commonly referred by North Koreans and raised awareness how wasteful the budget of 2.7 billion won ($2.5 million) has been in subsidizing a questionable political party.

The voters want to see a real showdown between the candidates most likely to become president. A TV debate that can determine the final stretch of the presidential race is of no use if it is exploited as a stage for a minor candidate to release grudges and resentment against mainstream rivals. The court is partly responsible for rejecting a motion to make TV debates eligible primarily for main candidates in 2007.

* The author is the deputy editor of political and international news of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Ko Jung-ae
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