Pandemic opens era of online-savvy politicsThe coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on traditional retail politics in Korea, characterized by a reliance on massive spending and nationwide political machines, while opening up new opportunities for minority political parties.
“On-tact, not untact,” is the slogan recently announced by the ruling Democratic Party (DP) for its national convention in August. The party will elect its new chairman and Supreme Council leaders on Aug. 29 and is creating a new strategy to use online tools to safely hold the event.
“If we hold the national convention in the conventional way, we won’t be able to stop the spread of the infections,” said a DP source, noting that the event has traditionally been held in a packed indoor stadium. “We will live-air campaign speeches through online platforms and utilize a mobile voting system starting with the upcoming event.”
Never before has a major political party in Korea held a virtual national convention. Politicians and experts said this year will mark one of the most significant changes to Korean politics since its democratization in 1987.
Major parties are working overtime to sever the traditional methods of operating the parties.
“Until now, we have tailor-made every aspect of the national convention to work best as an offline event,” said Rep. Ahn Gyu-back, head of the DP’s national convention preparation team. “Many are concerned whether we can maintain that effectiveness after switching to an online system.”
Ahn said the party is reviewing a plan to allow only a few select people to attend stump speeches, and to place chairs 2 meters (6 feet) apart inside a stadium to allow limited attendance of some voters. But the decision has yet to be made, and it is a tough one, he said.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP) said it will focus efforts to adapt to the changes the pandemic has brought about. During a June 23 UFP policy discussion meeting that included experts and top politicians, Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong asked participants to present a new conservative vision.
“We are already living in a completely different world because of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and artificial intelligence,” Won said.
“The market economy is important, but in such a world, the role of the state is more important than ever,” he said.
The April 15 general elections have already given Korea a taste of the new political norms. Candidates who attempted to stump outdoors faced empty streets and returned to their offices to focus their efforts on their social media presence.
And the DP approved its merger with the satellite Citizen Party through an online vote of its members.
The UFP conducted online interviews to nominate candidates for Daegu and North Gyeongsang.
Experts said the coronavirus pandemic has effectively ended the old way of politics, often symbolized by handshakes.
“In the past, politicians were evaluated only once every four years before elections,” Lee Jae-mook, professor of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “The pandemic accelerated the new trend that voters are asking questions of politicians online every minute.”
Eom Gyeong-yeong, a political commentator, welcomed the changes.
“Until now, mass mobilization using money, organizational powers and personal networks was the key for a major political party’s operation, but we all criticized it as inefficient,” he said. “It is promising that the old way of political mobilization is disappearing.”
A DP official involved in planning the upcoming national convention said the party stands to save substantial money by moving events online.
“The on-site vote during the national convention often requires about 100 million won [$83,000], but when we use the mobile voting, we will need as little as 20 percent of what we used to spend,” he said.
Other experts said political parties will be forced to invest more on presenting good policies and visions.
“The parties’ roles will shift from mass mobilization of voters to content development,” said Kim Sung-soo, professor of political science at Hanyang University. “It becomes important that the party must select an appealing direction and produce substantive content.”
Party think tanks used to be treated as in-house survey organs, but their roles are now increasingly important. The DP operates the Institute for Democracy led by President Moon Jae-in’s key ally, Yang Jeong-cheol. The UFP is operating the Yeouido Institute, headed by Ji Sang-wuk.
Until now, operating a substantial political party required a nationwide organization and deep pockets — both significant barriers to entry for small political parties. Korea’s legislature, therefore, has been dominated by two or three parties for decades.
In the post-pandemic era, small parties and fresh faces with few resources and backing from the political establishment are eyeing breakthroughs.
“Political rookies who are more online-savvy, youngsters and women can find an advantage in the future elections,” said Eom.
Rep. Yong Hye-in, chairwoman of the Basic Income Party, said she was able to found her party by concentrating on creating relationships with young people who are using smartphones.
“It doesn’t matter if you are from a giant party or a small party. In the next 10, 20 years, the competition will be about who understands online communications better,” she said.
Lee, the professor, stressed that parties need to find new ways to have meaningful interactions with voters in the absence of physical contact.
“In the Covid era, the ability to communicate and sympathize with [voters] is the most important political skill,” Lee said.
BY SHIM SAE-ROM, KIM KI-JEONG, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]