In race, main political forces collide

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In race, main political forces collide

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Yesterday’s presidential election was possibly the final major contest between the forces behind Korea’s industrialization and the forces behind its democratization.

Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party had trouble throughout the campaign dealing with the legacy of her father, the late strongman Park Chung Hee, who is credited with Korea’s miraculous economic growth. But at the end of the campaign, that’s what she left voters with. On her last day of campaigning, she revived one of her father’s most memorable slogans: “Let’s live better.”

In contrast, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party reminded voters of the left’s contribution to the country by ending dictatorial rule and letting Koreans live more freely. He told voters that once again Korea needed change. “We need a completely new team,” Moon said, echoing the two liberal presidents before him, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Moon was a student activist who fought against Park’s authoritarianism, a human rights lawyer and chief of staff in the Roh Blue House.

“This presidential election is the last competition between the force behind industrialization and the force behind democratization,” said Yoon Jong-bin, a professor of political science at Myongji University. “Coincidentally, actual descendants from the two sides are in a head-to-head match. This will be the last and final contest between people who can represent the two generations politically and in their own personal histories.”

The future of Korean politics was also seen in the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon. Ahn, a doctor-turned-enterpreneur-turned academic, entered the race as a third force promising to change the business-as-usual ways of Korean politics, and had a devoted following among the young from the start. But he was a political rookie and he was outmaneuvered by Moon and his experienced political mates in negotiations to merge their campaigns. Eventually, he abandoned the race and half-heartedly endorsed Moon.

Whether or not Ahn himself will run again in five years, some third force will have more of an impact and the presidential race will not be left to the traditional right and left, analysts say. Centrist voters are just waiting for such a force.

Even though the race came down to conservative Park versus liberal Moon, voters were not given a very clear-cut choice, analysts say. For years Park has been positioning herself as a less conservative figure than current President Lee Myung-bak. And in this campaign, she made grand promises of national political unity and bridging the gap between both the left and right and the traditional regional voting patterns of Korea. That pushed her closer to the center than past conservative candidates.

And from the start, Park and Moon centered both of their campaigns on the same vague concept called “economic democratization,” which is a lofty goal cited in Korea’s constitution. Politically, it translated into promises of more welfare for the poor, seniors and the dwindling middle class, and a harsher attitude toward the successful conglomerates, who are viewed as robber barons who treat suppliers, subcontractors, smaller competitors and contract employees shabbily. That made their platforms similar.

“Because the public reacted so furiously about some failed policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration, both Park and Moon didn’t have many choices to present alternatives,” said Park Sang-chul, a professor at Kyonggi University Graduate School of Politics and Policy. “This is why their pledges for economic democratization and welfare benefits were not much different from each other.”

And as the campaign progressed, growing fears of a worldwide economic slowdown or recession made center-right voters uneasy about policies that would attack the conglomerates, who are responsible for much of Korea’s economic success and growth.

Neither Park nor Moon presented very clear ideas in the realms of foreign affairs and national security despite the fact that North Korea fired a long-range missile during the campaign and is suspected to be preparing a third nuclear weapon test, while Japan elected a new rightist administration, China anointed new leader Xi Jinping and Barack Obama won a second term in the United States.

Neither candidate was clear on how he or she would continue or redefine South Korea’s relationships with the superpowers and the North.

In their first debate on Dec. 4, which was dedicated to foreign affairs and national security, Park said, “I will go for trust building in diplomacy with neighboring countries,” and Moon said, “I will strengthen the alliance with the United States and deepen economic cooperation with China.”

At the end, each candidate asked voters to hold the other to account for the sins of his or her predecessor. In the case of Park, she told voters to judge Moon by the failures of the Roh government. Moon asked voters to hold Park responsible for the failure of the Lee administration, backing away at the end from direct attacks on her father.

While the campaigns began civilly, mudslinging marked its last few days. The Park campaign attacked Moon and his DUP for raising groundless allegations that the National Intelligence Service was intervening in the election by having one of its employees smear Moon on the Internet.

The Moon campaign attacked Park and the Saenuri Party for making accusations that Roh had disavowed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto border between the North and South, during a 2007 summit with former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Analysts said the smears didn’t seem to be swaying voters.

The deeply rooted regionalism of Korean politics also showed signs of the easing. In opinion polls made public one week before the election, Park scored about 60 percent support in Busan and South Gyeongsang, the traditional strongholds of the Saenuri Party, while Moon scored in the mid 30s. In 2002, Roh scored 29.9 percent in Busan and 27.1 percent in South Gyeongsang, and the Moon campaign said it hopes to score about 40 percent in the regions.

The trend is similar in the Jeolla provinces, the long-time stronghold of the DUP. Park continued to earn about 10 percent in the opinion polls throughout her campaign. When President Lee won a landslide victory against his Democratic Party opponent Chung Dong-young by 5.6 million votes in 2007, he only scored 8.9 percent in the Jeolla provinces. The Saenuri Party said its goal for this election was scoring a double digit percentage in the region.

By Ser Myo-ja, Yang Won-bo [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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