An outmoded version of politics“I really like Moon Jae-in, but .?.?.” many people told me repeatedly before the presidential election. If they are satisfied with a candidate, they will simply vote for him. And yet, why did they always add “but .?.?.” Their reasons were always the same: They were disgusted with the idea of seeing Moon’s associates go wild again. They don’t want to vote for Moon because of the Roh Moo-hyun loyalists. And they shuddered remembering the days of the Roh presidency.
The people who supported Moon’s campaign told similar stories when Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul-turned politician, dropped out of the race and disappeared. They said Ahn will help Moon, because they have a definite plan. They said Moon will give up his lawmaker seat while Democratic United Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan and floor leader Park Jie-won will retire from politics. They also said Roh loyalists will declare that they will stay away from public office. They promised that the Moon campaign will accept Ahn’s demands for new politics.
I was skeptical about the argument. I told them that the opposition party would have chosen Ahn over Moon if that was their plan. I said the Roh loyalists chose Moon as their candidate because they didn’t want to retire from politics, so they won’t accept Ahn’s demands. They would probably think it would be better for them to be the opposition party rather than give up politics all together.
Although some senior members of the opposition party recommended the Moon campaign accept Ahn’s demands, the outcome was what I had anticipated. It was, actually, a surprise that Ahn endorsed Moon, although it was still lukewarm.
The presidential election was extremely disappointing. Demands for new politics were strong, but the politicians just ignored it. They, rather, focused their energies on political engineering based on the experiences of the past. On top of that, their personal interests were reflected and it became a giant mess. The chaos was caused because they failed to give up on their political maneuvering.
Seasoned campaign strategists always say the ace in the hole is “a single fatal blow.” The single fatal blow is to be used at the last minute of the campaign to destroy the opponent by giving no time to strike back. During last year’s Seoul mayoral by-election, the opposition party used the accusation against the ruling party candidate Na Kyung-won that she spent a fortune on skin care. That was the single fatal blow. In this election, the DUP’s accusation against a National Intelligence Service worker for having posted critical messages against Moon was the example.
These days, not only politicians but also the people outside of the political arena are tempted by using the trick. The country’s hottest political parody podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I Am a Petty-Minded Creep,” leaked the rumor about an interview with Kim Jong-nam - the dissident elder brother of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un - as an attempt to water down the opposing camp’s “fatal blow.”
The trick worked during the Seoul mayoral by-election, but the voters learned their lesson quickly. Malicious, vulgar messages actually backfired. Such attempts enraged the support of the rival and united them.
The public evolves and their evolution is faster than the evolution of politicians.
The politics of hatred was also judged in this election. Moon was rejected because of the Roh loyalists’ politics of hatred.
“I am running in the election to make Park Geun-hye lose,” said Lee Jung-hee, who was the candidate of the splinter Unified Progressive Party. These are politics of hatred, which makes politics a war. Instead of thinking about the country’s future, the politicians will fight only for their victory.
Dialogue, compromise and democratic process become less of a priority. Rather than seeking social unity, they tried to deepen the schism to solidify their support groups. It was a convenient strategy for those who are incapable of reasonable debates and those who are frustrated about losing fanatic fandom.
The old framework of confrontation between the left and the right was also broken. There are already too many voters who refused to be identified by the outdated model. And yet, the established politicians didn’t want to change the framework because their vested rights came from it. When the framework of a competition is changed, the future of the establishment becomes uncertain. To become a president, one must break away. For Moon to absorb the Ahn supporters, that was precisely what he must have done.
And yet, Moon failed to demonstrate his leadership. He was indecisive about how to deal with the rigged primary of the UPP, and he eventually formed an alliance with the minority party. He failed to foresee the poison in Lee’s spiteful remarks toward Park.
Moon also leaned ideologically too far left when talking about the Northern Limit Line issue, a plan to build a naval base in Jeju and the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. He eventually lost consistency and the public trust.
Park’s victory is also a risky win. Among the voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Park supporters are only half of Moon supporters. Although she was able to win this election by the united backing of voters in their 50s and 60s, what will she do in the future?
In a blind test, Park’s policies were supported by university students although her conglomerate reform plan and security policies were quite similar to those of Ahn. That shows the young voters were turning away from her not because of her policies but because of the behavior of the past conservative administrations.
Since the direct election was restored, no administration has been free from factionalism and corruption. They failed to listen to the voices of society’s minorities. To the youngsters, action meant more than words. The politicians of both ruling and opposition parties are stuck with the frame from the past. During the days of democratization, everything was forgiven as long as you condemned the administration and attacked conglomerates.
But today, youngsters have already moved to the frame for the future to seek employment and mutual development. With the politics from the past, politicians won’t be able to find a solution or win votes. If they fail to learn a lesson from this election, there won’t be any trace of political parties in the next election.
*The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?