Ahn’s political bubble bursting in NowonThe scene of Ahn Cheol-soo politicking was surprisingly different from that of the presidential election. His by-election campaign to become the lawmaker representing Nowon C District in northern Seoul makes the memory from four months ago seem faint.
The open space in front of the Lotte Department Store in Nowon-gu is the symbol of street politics in Sanggye-dong. It allows you to sense how the election was developing. The space can accommodate about 1,500 people and Ahn’s stumping took place on one side about 4 p.m. on April 14. Located in the middle of the space was a large stall for selling merchandise.
The by-election is not a busy market and voters pay little attention. Ahn seemed invincible during the presidential election and he is a clear frontrunner in the polls in the Nowon C by-election. Expectations were high that Ahn’s political appearance would be special. Though it may be a small election, political pundits expected that the event would be filled with passionate voters in their 20s and 30s.
But most of the people there April 14 were older voters, with few young people to be seen. Members of the main opposition Democratic United Party came to fill the empty seats, as the party made a strategic decision not to field a candidate.
Ahn, an independent candidate, uses the term “empathy talk” instead of stumping. There were very few questions asked by the voters. Instead, the moderator asked key questions. It was not very inspiring.
And that scene didn’t fit the image of Ahn’s politics. Enthusiasm from the presidential election was not recreated. All Ahn associates, such as former lawmaker Kim Sung-sik, Representative Song Ho-chang and lawyer Keum Tae-sup, joined the stumping but the memory from the presidential election has disappeared. It must have been because Ahn was running in a by-election, but the scene of voters loudly shouting Ahn’s name was not repeated. It bruised Ahn Cheol-soo politics’ pride, and Ahn is now having a new experience.
“The residents of Nowon C District first treated me as if I was a strange object,” Ahn said. “Now, they treat me warmly.” What does the change in the residents’ psychology mean? It means the bubbles are bursting from his politics. The strategy of mysticism in Ahn’s politics has reached its limit.
In a large-scale power game, mysticism is powerful. A presidential election has a very clear and sharp enemy line. Amid confrontations of ideologies, generations and classes, mysticism is an effective weapon with strategic ambiguity decorating it. Though Ahn’s “new politics” was an ambiguous phrase, that ambiguity bolstered the destructive power of mysticism.
The situation, however, is different when it is a small-scale power game. The language of a candidate in a legislative election must be specific, as voters want to know about the specifics. They demand the details in the development plan for the district and implementation programs. While the presidential election is a game that you can skip many processes and still win, a legislative election doesn’t allow such a bold omission of details. That’s the tricky irony of politics.
During the presidential election, the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon was a trend against politics and the political establishment. The people’s distrust in the business-as-usual politics united the voters around “anti-politics.” The pragmatism in a legislative election, however, undermines the justification and slogans of “anti-politics.”
Ahn’s language is challenged in small-scale politics. At the candidates’ debate for Nowon C District on April 16, Ahn’s rivals criticized his “new politics” by calling it ambiguous and vague.
Ahn said, “New politics is the politics that resolve the people’s everyday issues.” But other candidates from both ruling and opposition parties all promote the same idea. “New politics” is also not Ahn’s exclusive brand. Progressive Justice Party candidate Kim Ji-seon, the wife of former Nowon C District lawmaker Roh Hoe-chan, took a step forward by promoting “righteous new politics.” Kim pointedly asked Ahn, “Does your plan to cut the number of lawmakers really mean new politics?” Her criticism was powerful.
In his book, Ahn said Franklin Roosevelt was his role model. When he returned from a brief exile in the United States in March, he spoke about the movie “Lincoln” by Steven Spielberg. Ahn employed it as a message to return to politics.
Lincoln and Roosevelt are models of successful leadership. The two former American presidents were extremely seasoned politicians. They started from the bottom in the political arena and climbed to the top through vigorous efforts. Their politics were refined and became crafty at one point. By effectively using communication, persuasion, coercion and pressure, in turn, they knew how to put together political language and policy implementation.
Their political capabilities shined when they made a decision, leaving behind the ambiguity. The leadership of Lincoln and Roosevelt did not allow them a free ride and unsolicited gains. They achieved great accomplishments with their own abilities.
What is the new politics anyway? It’s a farewell to the ambiguous political moves. The top-class politics ensures the predictability and removing uncertainty will truly allow the new politics to function.
New politics is the politics of competency. The key role of the lawmakers is checking and monitoring the administration. The Park Geun-hye administration opened the golden ear of bureaucrats, as the ministers chosen from veteran civil servants are experienced. They are too experienced for first-term lawmakers to check, but currently, about half of the legislature is filled with first-term lawmakers.
The by-election in Nowon C District is small, but its political significance is never small. It makes us think about the true nature of new politics. It is resetting the entire framework of our politics, and it removes the bubbles from the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon during the last presidential election. No doubt that’s how the Ahn Cheol-soo politics evolve.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon