Steering the debate off course

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Steering the debate off course

What a night! I was expecting last Tuesday to witness something as dreary as the U.S. presidential debates. And boy oh boy, did I get that one wrong!

During that evening, we had two real and one make-believe presidential candidates on stage, helpfully seated from left to right, as if according to their political leanings.

On the far, far, far-out-of-sight left sat Lee Jung-hee of the Unified Progressive Party, with all the poise and tact of a very smart and impudent political science major. On the right was Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, with the imperial demeanor of someone patiently waiting to wear purple. And in between these two women sat poor Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party.

If anyone charges the stage manager of a set-up, it would be entirely understandable.

Lee, whose reputation has been discredited by those who see her as a stooge of Pyongyang, came on stage with a nothing-to-lose attitude. In fact, she succeeded in rattling Park’s cage by openly stating that she was in the debate for the sole purpose of derailing her bid for the Blue House.

Although she came across as the brightest and most articulate of the three, Lee, who is extremely well-versed in ideology, accidentally let her true colors show when she referred to South Korean government as namcheuk (southern) term used only by North Koreans.

While Lee operated like a communist interrogator of Park, the latter adopted a more measured manner and counterattacked in both a less aggressive and less articulate manner. Park came across as the least capable of the three, often looking at her notes, for which she is famous.

In any event, both Lee and Park more or less ignored Moon, as much as the rules of the debate would allow. Moon seemed like an uncle caught between two scrabbling nieces, whose thoughts and suggestions were largely given lip service - and ignored. Ironically, even though Lee was there to attack Park and presumably increase Moon’s chances of being elected, she initially hurt Moon more than helped him.

According to Korean blog posts, there was a sympathetic reaction for Park and a negative reaction toward Moon, who was not able to raise himself above the on-stage ruckus. Lee, outside her radical fringe, did nothing to further her cause other than raise her notoriety. The latest polling numbers may tell a different story, but before the debate, polls showed her support rate to be just 0.4 percent.

What may later emerge as the most important result of this first debate was the belated endorsement of Moon by Ahn Cheol-soo, who announced that his support for Moon’s presidential bid was “unconditional.”

Lee’s attack bore all the hallmarks of a typical Korean leftist harangue - great for scoring up-front political and entertainment points, but at the same time alienating the general populace by showing just how weird the Korean left can really be.

Lee’s attack on Park backfired and ended up giving rise to a wave of sympathy for the late strongman’s daughter. Following the debate, polls showed voter opinion in favor of Park crossing the 50 percentile mark for the first time. This may have helped Ahn get over his hurt feelings and come out strongly in support of Moon.

Clearly, many Koreans are looking for some kind of change in government - and the last thing this block of voters needs is a clever radical sabotaging the opportunity to clear house and install a fresh new administration.

Many older Koreans are disgusted that Lee was included in the debate given her inconsequential standing, especially after she derailed what should have been an opportunity to compare the major parties’ platforms and the views of their candidates. Instead, she turned the debate into political rant about the establishment and Park’s past.

Criticism has since been strongly directed at the debate’s moderator, who did a very good job in managing the debate, but did nothing to enforce the rules against personal attacks among candidates.

Unfortunately, Lee’s UPP holds enough seats in the National Assembly to qualify her to participate in these three televised debates, despite her tiny number of supporters.

To call her a political gadfly would be something of an understatement. At best, her ego will further set back her cause. At worst, should she succeed in steering the debate off course, the electorate will be deprived of any meaningful comparison between the candidates - both of whom have yet to finish clarifying their political platforms at this late date.

All of which makes it likely that we can expect more of the same nonsense during tonight’s debate. Some people say this year’s presidential race has finally become interesting. I would add that it has become weird and unbecoming for a nation of Korea’s stature.

* The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global Big Six executive recruitment consulting company.

by Tom Coyner
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