Secret to Ahn’s popularityImagine if a gomtang, or beef soup, restaurant were opening right next to a restaurant specializing in seollangtang, or beef soup with noodles. Both restaurants specialize in beef soup, although the gomtang restaurant has not finalized its whole menu yet. This new, ambiguous restaurant, which could offer fancy buffets or just simple bibimbap rice rolls, is Ahn Cheol-soo’s new party. It is already more popular than the Democratic Party, the existing restaurant where the servers are rude and often get into fights among themselves.
In an opinion poll by Gallup Korea on Dec. 20, Ahn’s new party was supported by 32 percent of respondents, just slightly behind the conservative Saenuri Party’s 35 percent. The Democratic Party only received 10 percent of support. Ahn’s new party is different from the other parties that have come and gone, like those by Park Se-il, Rhyu Si-min and Moon Kook-hyun. The pro-Park Geun-hye alliance, which was quickly formed a month before the 2008 general elections, received about 7 percent of support at the time, which turned into 14 seats in the National Assembly that election.
The popularity of Ahn’s new party is even higher than the rating for Ahn himself, 22 percent to 20 percent. Ahn’s party pretty much is Ahn; it is more than a little paradoxical that it is more popular than he is. The two main reasons for the popularity of Ahn’s new party are the disappointing feelings people have felt for the Democratic Party and an anticipation for a new system. However, the reality of Ahn and his new party is still unknown. Ahn’s new party should be grateful to the Democratic Party rather than to Ahn.
At the Seoul Bus Terminal a few months ago, I overheard a conversation between two seniors in their 60s. One said he supported the Democratic Party, but he wasn’t even sure whether the DP could be considered a political party anymore. His friend responded, “Even someone like Cho Myung-chul got to be a member of the National Assembly because of the Democratic Party.”
Cho is a North Korean defector, unaffiliated with the Democratic Party. He became a lawmaker as a proportional representative of the ruling Saenuri Party. But once you hate a party, you want to blame everything on it. Although I do not agree with their derogatory remarks toward Cho, the public seemed to blame the Democratic Party for everything that goes wrong. The DP may feel wrongfully accused, but it needs to look back on what it has done in the nearly 10,000 hours since the presidential election.
This year, the Democratic Party bet all-in on the National Intelligence Service’s online posting scandal. A party insider who wanted to remain anonymous told me, “There must be an outstanding strategist in the ruling party. When the government slips a tip on the NIS case, the Democratic Party will fall for it and demand the president apologize. The president refuses, and the Democratic Party gets even angrier and demands an investigation. The president says no again. The Democratic Party cannot afford to do anything else and gets stuck in the quagmire. Without any options, the DP has to ignore the election results and chase the online posting story throughout the year.”
It is a new conspiracy theory. While the scenario may not be true, what is clear is that the opposition lacked strategy. In the game of baduk, or go, you need to make sure your own stones are safe before attacking. But the DP did not care about its support and focused on hurting Park’s support, making the party predictable. By appealing to hard-liners in the party, they would make extreme remarks, such as refusing to accept the results of the presidential election. And each mistake made life a bit easier for the ruling party. The opposition party wasted the valuable 10,000 hours that should have been used to move past the legacies of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The Democratic Party should have done more useful, active things, like working behind the scenes to help end the railroad union strike.
That’s why people welcome the appearance of a new party. The Democratic Party resembles Korail in many ways. The DP may need a competitive system even more desperately than Korail. The party is indebted to its supporters after a series of election defeats, but its lawmakers are complacent because of their solid regional support base and vested interests. The Saenuri Party changed its system when it was nearly torn apart during the impeachment crisis in 2004, but the DP’s losses were not fatal enough to spur reforms, having won 14.7 million votes and 127 seats in the last election. The party has no reason to change unless there is serious external pressure. Ahn’s new party should play the role of a Korail subsidiary and force the DP to change.
*The author is deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Min-seok