Lessons from a president
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I am thinking of former Uruguay President José Mujica today. He got more popular when he left office. He was elected with 52 percent of public support, and his ratings climbed to 65 percent when he stepped down. I hope President Moon Jae-in learns from him. There were six secrets to his popularity.
First, Mujica read public sentiment and sympathized with it. The case of Uruguay’s soccer hero Luis Suarez is a good example. In 2014, FIFA imposed a heavy disciplinary action on Suarez during the Brazil World Cup. He was fined 100,000 Swiss francs ($109, 969), suspended from nine A-match games and had his player status suspended for four months. Without Suarez, Uruguay was eliminated in the 16th round. The people of Uruguay were enraged that the punishment was aimed at helping Brazil, the host, to advance to the finals. While it had nothing to do with politics, Mujica did not ignore the national fury. He repeatedly told the world why FIFA’s punishment was unfair.
In a radio speech on June 26, 2014, Mujica said it would be remembered as the worst moment in football history and that the people of Uruguay should greet Suarez and give him a hug of consolation.
In the speech, he showed the ability to read the sentiment of a people in deep despair and collective disappointment.
But when K-pop hero BTS was unfairly attacked by Chinese netizens or when a South Korean fisheries official was executed and burned by the North Korean military recently, President Moon remained silent in the face of national despair and disappointment.
Second, Mujica gladly gave up living in the presidential palace. It was not even an election promise. He gave the office to the homeless and lived in his farmhouse with five dogs, a couple of police bodyguards and a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. He became the “poorest president in the world” and the friendliest-ever president. Moon did not fulfill his campaign promise to move to Gwanghwamun Square from the Blue House to communicate with citizens actively.
Third, Mujica embraced rivals and opponents. He appointed his presidential election contender and Finance Minister Daniel Astori as vice president. He did not retaliate against a military that imprisoned and tortured him for 13 years during guerilla days. Moon has been busy rooting out “past evils,” not just from the previous administration but from 50 and 100 years ago.
Fourth, Mujica left the economy to experts. Vice President Astori took over economic policy from former President Vasquez. Leftist economist Astori advocated Chilean neo-socialism but prioritized a pragmatic economic policy. He supported macroeconomic stability, fiscal health and a free trade agreement with the United States.
Mujica was not swayed by the leftist populism that swept South America. After the economy grew by 4 percent each year, Uruguay’s per capita GDP was the highest in South America and its poverty rate fell dramatically. Moon pushed an ungrounded “income-led growth” policy and practically pressured Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Hong Nam-ki to threaten the nation’s fiscal integrity by raising questions on the finance ministry’s adherence to the 40-percent cap on its national debt-to-GDP ratio.
Fifth, Mujica said what he wanted to say to the powerful public sector union even though it was his major ally. He pointed out that the union “reigns with unimaginable privileges.” He asked, “All Uruguay citizens want to be employed at public corporations, but why is it allowed to only a few?” He proposed jobs that could be worked in rotations of several years instead of life-time tenure. Moon declared “no contract workers in the public sector!” As a result, employment chances at public corporations became extremely narrow, and conflict deepened between existing full-time employees and newcomers at the Incheon International Airport. Moon also remained silent about the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU)’s rally on Gwanghuamun Square despite the government’s ban on rallies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through the National Foundation Day assemblies.
Sixth, Mujica always communicated with citizens effectively. He held the arms of reporters and winked. He did not avoid questions. His wife cooked and personally brew Mate tea to share with journalists. Moon promised to make public his schedule 24/7 and actively communicate with the media, but there have been only a handful of news conferences over the past three years.
Mujica retired from politics on Oct. 20 at age 85. “I did not grow hatred in my garden,” he said. His farewell speech impressed people around the world. I hope the message goes beyond the Blue House walls and reaches President Moon’s ears.