Outsiders fare badly in Korean presidential races

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Outsiders fare badly in Korean presidential races

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For followers of Korean politics, recent rumors about the presidential ambitions of UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, which swept the country but dwindled after an official denial by his office, were deja vu all over again.

Since Korea reintroduced direct presidential elections in 1987, the rise of a fresh face who has no ties with major political parties has been a common occurrence in the political sphere - although none has gone on to win the presidency.

In 1992, Hyundai Chairman Chung Ju-yung and lawyer Park Chan-jong emerged as dark-horse candidates. Rhee In-je, who was Gyeonggi governor at the time, rose to a kind of political stardom in 1997.

In 2002, Chung Mong-joon, son of the Hyundai chairman, expressed his presidential ambition. In 2007, former Prime Minister Goh Kun, former Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan and Moon Kook-hyun, a successful entrepreneur and civil environmental campaigner, shook the political world.

In 2012, software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo was the next big thing.

While some managed to compete in the presidential races, failing to win, some didn’t even become official candidates. Three years are left until the 2017 presidential election, and Ban won the early crown as 2017’s candidate from left field.

Although his office said the UN secretary-general and former foreign minister in the Roh Moo-hyun administration has no interest in Korean politics, he remains the most favored presidential candidate in opinion polls.

Park Chan-jong, who ran in the 1992 presidential election, said it is crucial for a presidential contender to have a serious background in the brutal world of real politics. “From President Kim Young-sam to President Park Geun-hye, all the winners of Korea’s presidential elections were lawmakers who went through bitter experiences such as election defeats,” he said. “To run in the presidential race, you must be trained.”

He was skeptical about Ban’s potential, especially because he is a diplomat. “When he enters the political arena, it will be quickly revealed whether he is real or not,” Park said.

Park also said the deeply rooted regionalism and the hegemonies of major parties were the biggest obstacles for a political rookie in Korea. That’s why the fresh face factor has never been successful in a presidential election, he said.

Other analysts said Ban’s career as a successful diplomat could be an asset if the constitution is amended to a semi-presidential system, in which domestic and international affairs are split between the prime minister and the president.

Ban is a Chungcheong native and that could work as an advantage as voters are fed up with the decades-old confrontation between Gyeongsang and Jeolla.

Rhee In-je, a member of the Saenuri Party’s Supreme Council, was a rising star in the 1997 presidential election. Rhee’s rise complicated the competition between Kim Dae-jung and Lee Hoi-chang. Rhee was defeated in the Grand National Party’s presidential primary by Lee, but created a new political party and still ran in the race. Kim won the election.

Rhee said he never thought the presidential primary was unfair, but Lee’s support plummeted 55 percent to 47 percent over just one week after his son’s draft-dodging scandal. “That continued for about three months and I had to think deeply,” Rhee said. “I have to accept history’s evaluation.”

Asked about the limits of the fresh face factor in a presidential election, Rhee said the substance of a candidate is key.

“The people, who are fed up with business-as-usual politics, express their desire for something new,” Rhee said. “But when the contender has no substance, he just ends up as a passing phenomenon.”

In the 2012 presidential election, Ahn emerged quickly as a serious contender. Public support was overwhelming and he topped opinion polls. Ahn declared his presidential bid in September 2012, three months before the election. He bowed out on Nov. 23 in the middle of frustrating negotiations with veteran politician Moon Jae-in over deciding who would be the unified opposition candidate.

November is the toughest time for many of new faces in presidential races. In 1997, Rhee became overwhelmed by Lee Hoi-chang starting in November. In the 2002 race, Roh Moo-hyun’s support exceeded that of Chung Mong-joon.

In the last presidential election, the competition between Ahn and Moon became fiercer than ever in the middle of November.

Analysts said a rookie without strong backing from an established party is naturally weaker than experienced politicians.

Another important factor - and perhaps the most important - is determination, experts said.

“The candidate’s will is a decisive factor,” said Lee Chung-hee, professor of political science at the Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “Their ratings will fall and the candidate’s will to win is the driving force.”

BY KANG TAE-HWA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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