Ahn’s uncertain futureThere was not much of a surprise in the election of President Moon Jae-in. The race was predictable from the beginning with only a brief moment of tension a month before the election. At one point, polls pointed to a two-way race between Moon and Ahn Cheol-soo. An upset was possible, but only for a brief period of time. Ahn finished double-digits behind Moon and even trailed Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate from a party considered dead in the water after its President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office due to a power abuse scandal.
The main drama of the May 9, 2017 election would be the epic fall of Ahn, a former dark horse on the political scene. When the timid-voiced former software mogul first entered politics, he was widely known as the “liberal darling.”
There are always winners and losers in battles whether they are military or political. Ahn’s fall could not have been more painful. He lost the support of the Honam region — which refers to Gwangju and North and South Jeolla provinces — and young voters. Regional and generational support along with ideological principles usually motivate politicians to try for a comeback. To Ahn, his once phenomenal popularity from the traditionally liberal stronghold of Honam should have been his political nutrients. His defeat has been even more disappointing to his supporters because he ended up having so few of them.
Ahn failed to sustain the buzz he generated when he debuted on the political scene through a bid for the Seoul mayoral post that was contested in a by-election in October 2011. After his graceful yielding of the liberal nomination in the mayoral race, he went on to run for the presidency in 2012. He was warmly welcomed by young people. But this year, Ahn was utterly abandoned by his biggest support group: he was able to gain just over 10 percent of the votes from people in their 20s and 30s. Their votes went to Moon, reform-minded conservative Yoo Seong-min and left-wing candidate Sim Sang-jeong. To borrow his own words, a leader of the future was defeated by a politician from the past.
Ahn was also shunned in the Honam region. The People’s Party, which he headed, did far better than expected in last year’s general election. Its candidates swept constituencies in the Jeolla region with votes of around 60 percent. In the presidential election, however, the voting rate plunged to 30 percent. It remains unclear whether lawmakers in the region will continue to be loyal to Ahn, who earned less than half the votes Moon won in a region that had previously produced dissident-turned-president Kim Dae-jung. Ahn has come out of the race entirely empty-handed.
What went wrong? The Ahn phenomenon could have been reignited given the undecided vote ratio of over 30 percent. But that did not happen because Ahn remained a fence-sitter and was slow in reading the changing winds. Five years ago, it was young voters seeking a new future that drove his popularity. This time, he mainly won support from seniors as an alternative to Moon.
Ahn’s fandom was based on distrust of mainstream politics. His call for a new kind of politics was a departure from the old ways. He should have recruited new blood. But the party he created to carve out the so-called third way was hardly new. It was formed from members who bolted the Democratic Party, where Moon and other loyalists to former President Roh Moo-hyun commanded the mainstream. Due to shady and contradictory party values, it lost young voters and instead drew voters in their 50s and 60s. Because of the dramatic shift in the support base, the individual Ahn and what made him a phenomenon were separated.
When Ahn stood against Moon, he no longer could rely on the halo effect of the Ahn phenomenon. Ahn merely posed as a substitute to anti-Moon forces. If he was fully aware of the situation, he could have upped his chances by cementing an opposition front against Moon. But he did not have such skill. He turned right, but still his outreach to the conservatives fell short.
Given his reiteration of “political commitment,” Ahn will not likely leave politics. He declared he would make another bid in the next election. He returned from a brief self-imposed exile after the election and appeared at the high-profile memorial service for the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, which President Moon and other political heavyweights attended. He may still have the pride that he once beat Moon in approval ratings during the campaign. He has made a successful comeback before. But this time, it may not be so easy.
The People’s Party has 40 seats in the 300-member legislature. Its voting base is the Honam region. Moon courted the People’s Party several times to re-merge during the race. If some of the Honam-based lawmakers jump ship, Ahn’s party would be shaken. The party already is rocky with the veteran group loyal to former President Kim Dae-jung turning towards Moon. Even if he somehow saves the party, it is uncertain that he could regain confidence from the Honam region and young voters.
It is not easy to please a voting base. From his mixed base, Ahn could be pressured by both the rightist and leftist groups. Ahn vowed to win more than 50 percent of the votes when he runs again. He could have raised hope upon seeing Moon’s victory after one failed attempt. But before he returns to politics, he must seriously ask himself why he wants to stay in politics. He must ask if the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon lives on.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 24, Page 24
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.