The DUP is stuck in a rut

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The DUP is stuck in a rut

The Democratic United Party has lost two presidential elections in a row. Its real decline dates to 2008 when it lost any sense of political reason in the midst of public rage during the protests against American beef imports sparked by the mad cow disease scare. It neglected its legislative duty and became entirely swept up in the inflammatory street protests. It willingly submerged itself in the angry voices of the masses and lost its identity.

In May 2008, I gave a lecture on the subject “The Opportunity for the Democratic Party (the party’s name at the time) in the age of President Lee Myung-bak” to a legislators’ workshop for the party, which was just getting used to being the opposition after having held power for a decade. It lost the presidential election in 2007 by 5 million votes and even fell short of securing 100 legislative seats, which are necessary to veto constitutional changes, in the legislative election the following year.

The message to the Democratic Party was loud and clear. Public favor with the generation of the 1980s student movement and the progressive leadership of Roh Moo-hyun had run out. Former student activists were recruited to the political field by President Kim Dae-jung as young blood and gained momentum by joining the battle against the conservatives’ attempt to impeach President Roh. But they fell short of producing a leader that could command nationwide support.

The politics of polarization, feeding on the resentments and divisions of the Roh Moo-hyun era, also wearied the people. Loyalists exaggerated the glories of the Roh days, but they ended up in crushing defeat as they came across as prejudiced, cynical and incompetent to voters.

During the workshop, I advised the DP members to learn from past leaders like Kim Dae-jung and Park Chung Hee. “President Kim lost in three presidential races by primarily relying on his home turf of the Jeolla provinces and dissident groups. In his fourth run, however, he became wiser and expanded his voter base,” I said. “Through a political coalition, he stretched his power base to Chungcheong Province and merged the democracy movement forces with the authors of industrialization. And it finally paid off.”

I also said at the workshop, “Park Chung Hee need not be the DP’s enemy. The DP must expand its historical perspective by recognizing Park’s accomplishments in spearheading our industrialization while at the same time criticizing his wrongdoings for suppressing democracy and freedom.” I added, “Kim Dae-jung (a victim of Park’s dictatorial rule) also reconciled with Park. No one can become the Korean president when he or she is trapped in the Roh Moo-hyun-style self-consciousness and distorted historical perspective which defines Korean history as one dominated by opportunists.”

I still believe the main opposition party can return to power if it can learn to put together the drive of industrialization of Park Chung Hee, Kim Dae-jung’s engaging leadership in democratization and inter-Korean relations and finally the Roh Moo-hyun legacy of civilian participation and severing of business-political ties.

But there were no deliberations on how to broaden the party’s parochial identity and historical perspective during the workshop. The debate was cut short by a member who yelled that this was no time for idle discussions when the people were in the streets protesting the Lee Myung-bak administration’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports.

Since then, the DP’s downfall followed in this way: First, after the death of President Roh Moo-hyun in May 2009, his confidante Moon Jae-in made a comeback, triggering a leadership shift to the loyalists of Roh. Second, since the launch of the satirical political podcast program “Naneun Ggomsuda,” or “I’m a Petty-minded Creep” in April 2011, which was dedicated to making Moon the next president, an anti-government campaign spread quickly online and through social media platforms, and a vulgar and bitter campaign it was. Third, after the general election of April 2012, key Roh loyalists - including Han Myung-sook, former prime minister in the Roh administration - retrieved the central power of the opposition party, placing Lee Hae-chan, another former prime minister of the Roh government, as head of the DUP and Moon as the presidential candidate.

So, what’s the chance of the DUP having better luck in five years? To raise its odds, it will have to maintain a political distance from the masses. A political party should be a leading group that packages public demands into policies - not a mere follower chasing votes wherever they can be found. The party cannot win respect from the public if it dances to any popular tune on social networking services. It could end up as a trainer devoured by his beast.

In that context, only a political party can be a governing force and draw up governing programs. If it surrenders that role to the masses, society can turn into a state of revolution or chaos. The DUP must overcome its image of following blindly whatever is said by civic groups or online. It all begins with taking away the leadership from splinter groups.

The Democratic United Party should change its character from self-denial to self-enlargement. If it clings to the Roh Moo-hyun legacy and spirit, it will forever be the opposition. It must adopt the wisdom of Kim Dae-jung, who joined hands with the enemy forces of Park Chung Hee to broaden his power base. It must study the presidents it denies and fulminates against - Park and Syngman Rhee - and rebalance its historical perspective by recognizing their merits as well as their demerits. One who denies the legacy and heritage of modern Korea is not qualified to become president.

But who will be willing to take up the challenge? Would it be Sohn Hak-kyu, Kim Du-kwan or Chung Sye-kyun? How about Kim Boo-kyum or Kim Han-gill? Among Roh loyalists, Kim Byung-joon, with his sense of balance, would probably be most qualified. If not, the party could recruit a new leader from the outside. The popular choice would be Ahn Cheol-soo, a software tycoon-turned-professor-turned politician who dropped out of the most recent race and endorsed Moon as a single liberal candidate, although not as robustly as the DUP would have liked. Or the next candidate could be Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, who is closely watching all the troubles of the DUP.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo and a JTBC News 9 anchor.

by Chun Young-gi
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