A Thermidorian Reaction
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye was a bloodless revolution. All powers were handed over to liberals from conservatives. The presidential by-election in 2017 was a step to legally approve the revolution. Members of the ancien régime and Park associates faced prison terms over 100 years in total. Five of them committed suicides during the prosecution’s investigations.
Dec. 9 marks the midpoint of the Moon Jae-in revolutionary administration. By now, the systems, political culture and the people’s lives should have been different. But the recent crisis surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk dealt a fatal blow to the justification for the revolution — justice, fairness and end of privilege and foul play. The people’s livelihoods are increasingly difficult, while relations with a key ally — pivotal to the country’s geopolitical survival — has deteriorated. The ruler has changed, but the people’s lives are still gloomy. Whether the ruler of the plain is a lion or a leopard or a hyena, the lives of deer and impalas don’t change, an author once wrote in his novel. That cynicism fits our reality.
All revolutions are accompanied with resistance. The reign of terror by Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer who won power after the French Revolution, ended just after two years. The extreme rule that punished not only those opposing the revolution but also those neutral about it led to killing tens of thousands. After he executed Georges Danton — his comrade of the revolution — not only his enemies but also his allies turned against him. The French people, who were passionate about the revolution, also responded icily. The Thermidorian Reaction came the next.
The Moon Jae-in administration is also facing a kind of Thermidorian Reaction. There is no sign of change. Moon’s approval rating has dropped to 39 percent in a Gallup Korea poll and 45 percent in a Realmeter poll. The numbers reflect the so-called Lee Nak-yon effect. Prime Minister Lee is actually the only Honam (South and North Jeolla) politician who is leading other presidential hopefuls in opinion polls, just like former President Kim Dae-jung did before election. Luck is also on Lee’s side. Following in the footsteps of Ahn Hee-jung, Kim Kyung-soo and Lee Jae-myung, even Cho Kuk faced an end to his political career.
An opinion poll expert said Honam voter anticipation for Lee is extremely high. “It is over 70 percent. Their approval rating for Moon is an expression of their desire that his administration — a basis for Lee’s future — must not collapse,” he explained.
As long as Moon maintains a 40 percent approval rating — and as long as the ruling Democratic Party can win the next presidential election again — there is little reason for the government to change its key policies. They can just brush off public complaints about their policies of rapid minimum wage hikes, the rigid 52-hour workweek, “income-led” growth and engagement of North Korea simply as a resistance of the conservatives. And the conservatives would conveniently remain split. Around early next year, Moon will be able to issue a presidential pardon to former President Park now in jail. So, there is no reason for the administration to change its way of governance. Because that’s the nature of those holding power — there is no reason for the public to be upset.
So, the conservatives must get a grip. From the Cho Kuk crisis until the next April general election, they have six months. One of my friends, who went to the anti-government protest at Gwanghwamun Square on Oct. 3, expressed his frustration. “I walked from the City Hall Station to the square. But I didn’t want to join the so-called Taegukgi Troops’ rally. The event hosted by Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, head of the Christian Council of Korea, was even more extreme, so I didn’t want to join,” he said. “I headed toward the rally led by the opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP). But they were just repeating the same insults toward President Moon. I just came back.”
This is the reality of our conservatives. Due to their unwillingness to change, they always have no more than 10 percent support from voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
The conservative politicians must repent their shortcomings. But they are not changing at all. Instead of looking back on the original sin that caused the candlelight vigil revolution, they are stuck in a factional fight. What are they expecting now? All the conservative politicians who built their careers since the Park Chung Hee regime till the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations must forget their past. They must make sacrifices.
Conservative leaders, including LKP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn, must forget about their glorious pasts and make sacrifices for the future. How much longer do they have to force the conservative voters to the street rallies? They are committing a sin by thinking that they are the only ones who can lead the conservatives.
Ironically, they have grabbed their final chance because of the Cho Kuk scandal. They have no more than six months. The liberal politicians used to win up to 60 percent support until last year’s local elections, but the rating has plunged to the 40 percent level. Centrists, about 30 percent of the total, are mulling over their next choices. Young conservative energy is the only power to attract the centrists.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 22, Page 31