Keys to victory after five years

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Keys to victory after five years

Was the presidential election the opposition Democratic United Party’s last chance? Though the process of merging candidacy with independent contestant Ahn Cheol-soo was ugly, Ahn ended up giving support, of sorts, to Moon of the DUP. Splinter parties’ Lee Jung-hee and Sim Sang-jeong got out of the way, too. And don’t forget that the core issue of the election - “economic democratisation” - was one that a center-left party should have absolutely dominated after five years of Lee Myung-bak rule.

The DUP may blame Ahn, Lee’s powerful but rather extreme tirades, the media, or anyone else they feel like. They may ask, “Did we get the wrong candidate?” even though Moon was (well, in my opinion at least) an honorable man and the best candidate they could have fielded. The blame lies within. The problem is with the party itself.

Let’s start with their message. Apparently their strategists believed “the slogan of power change” would be an effective one. But how different was that to last April’s “judgment of the MB government”? Considering the DUP’s relatively young target base, the core message needed to be a positive one: vote for us, because of X, Y and Z. Criticizing the ruling Saenuri Party should have been their secondary message.

The advert filmed at Moon’s home was decent enough, but what about the one with images of endless anti-MB protests? It seems the opposition party is stuck in the old mentality of pro-democracy movement - oppose and fight. That was a suitable orientation for protesting in the dictatorship era, but not the right one for building a government now.

Instead of thinking, “What do we hate about the government?” they need to ask “What do Korean citizens want, and how do we deliver it?” This election campaign was conducted nearer their part of the political spectrum - Park was the one who moved - so offering something attractive should not have been too hard.

Their protest mentality and negative style meant a focus on the past. Constant references to Park Chung Hee were counter-productive. Why? First, this is 2012, not 1972. To 20- and 30-somethings, he may have been a dictator, but they are also too young to really hate him. And those old enough to remember Park Chung Hee actually tend to like him. Who did the over-50s just vote for? The DUP needs to accept this reality, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.

They also got the welfare issue wrong. The public obviously wants more of it - but in an aspirational way. I got the impression that the party was basically saying, “Your life is hard and miserable because of Lee Myung-bak. We’ll give you some extra money to make it better.” It sounds like pity. But Korea is an aspirational society: the message needs to be, “We will help you achieve the life you want and deserve.” It combines welfare with personal responsibility and ambition, as in the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder in the 1990s. And those two were proven election winners, unlike anyone in the DUP today.

Same with chaebol policy. Restricting the ability of chaebol families to abuse their market power is not socialist. It can even be said to be pro-genuine capitalism, as it involves equal shareholder rights (the chairman is not the company, after all - it belongs to all its shareholders) and fairer markets, strengthens the rule of law, and gives others a chance to get ahead. But the opposition party presented it in a way that looked anti-business, rather than aspirational.

For many younger voters, the DUP is just as unappealing as the Saenuri Party. They tire of the same old faces, factions and regional power-brokers. The opposition party should have fixed this after the crushing 2007 defeat, but didn’t. Too many people in the party had too much to lose, perhaps - but even being an admiral is no good if you are on a sinking ship.

Then there is the issue of North Korea. This isn’t much of a vote-winner in comparison to the economy, but it certainly can be a vote-loser. A majority of the public want some sort of engagement - but being too nice to what remains an ugly regime will make centrists suspicious, and older generations more determined than ever to vote for someone else. And electing the likes of Lim Soo-kyung, a former student dissident, as an assembly member is basically no different to telling the average person, “We’ll be just fine without your vote.”

They should instead have been bringing in a new generation of younger, progressive, open-minded professionals lacking in old-school ideological baggage. People who know how to organise things, not just oppose. People who see chaebol reform as an economic opportunity, rather than a chance to get even. People who want change, but not in a way that is unnecessarily divisive.

That sounds a bit like Ahn Cheol-soo. I had the opinion that this year was too soon for Ahn, but 2017 surely isn’t. What if he starts gaining experience, putting together a proper party full of the right kind of people, and offering policies that mix the people’s desire for change with aspirational values? What if he keeps talking about the future, while the DUP talk about the past?

Ahn could end up overtaking the DUP, and making the party into his junior partner. But regardless, Minjudang in its current state will never again control the National Assembly, or elect another president.

*The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor
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