The 30-percent rule
The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Moon Jae-in administration prides itself in being born in the spirit of the candlelight vigils. Moon won 41 percent of the vote in the 2017 snap election. But it does not mean that four in 10 Koreans chose him for president. When factoring in the number of people who were eligible to vote but didn’t cast a ballot, that leaves Moon having been supported by just 31.6 percent. In other words, nearly seven in 10 Koreans chose not to back him.
Moon is not the only president who came into office with the meager support of some 30 percent of eligible voters. Ever since Korea adopted the direct presidential election system in 1987, seven elections have been held, and the winner of each race earned just the same range of eligible votes. Even if a contender dropped out midway to officially back another leading candidate, whoever won always received the endorsement of between 30 and 40 percent of eligible voters.
Polling experts say it’s an obvious result in a democratic society. Even if a presidential candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, if the turnout was 70 percent, that means they were supported by merely 35 percent of the voting-eligible population. Pundits argue that it is impossible for a candidate to win support from the vast majority of eligible voters unless the election is held in a totalitarian state where the turnout would normally be upwards of 90 percent. In fact, the core foundation of Korea’s presidential election is a victory based on a majority vote, which means that even earning 30-something percent of eligible votes should not undermine the legitimacy of an elected candidate as that share is still larger than anyone else.
The sheer fact that Moon gained support from 31.6 percent of eligible voters reflects the essence of a democratic system. In democracy, statecraft is about embracing not only one’s fans, but haters and indifferent voters as well. Every Korean president chosen by a direct election system started their terms without the support of some 60 percent of eligible voters.
But the Moon administration has failed to convince the majority of people of the direction in which it wants to lead the country. It tore the nation apart by its jeokpye (deep-rooted evil) eradication drive and refused to look to the future. Each time Moon’s approval rating dropped, the government recovered old skeletons in the closet to unite its stalwart supporters.
Moon must learn from former President Kim Dae-jung’s mantra to go “half a step” ahead of the public instead of forcing the people to follow its step. A landslide victory in the presidential election does nothing to change the essence of democracy — to embrace fans, haters and indifferent voters alike throughout state administration, and to convince them and make concessions along the way.
Disregarding this and solely looking after one’s strongest support base amounts to a blatant challenge to democracy.
Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, who handled inter-Korean relations for decades, quoted a line from the South Korean drama “Lee San, Wind of the Palace” in 2008 as he was talking to a group of South Korean businessmen at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. “The boat will capsize if public sentiment wobbles,” he said. Even a North Korean official knows this.