The author is a senior editorial writer of JoongAng Ilbo.
The opposition camp has fallen into a black hole created suddenly by two-time presidential contender Ahn Cheol-soo, who has declared a bid for Seoul mayor in the April by-election. As a result, the main opposition People Power Party’s (PPP) hope to field a single conservative candidate for the mayoral post — which has been held by a liberal figure for a decade — has been gravely endangered due to the unexpected emergence of Ahn, who was expected to attempt at third run at the presidency next year.
In mid-December, when Ahn declared his bid for the Seoul mayorship, the mood had turned in favor of the PPP ahead of the two April by-elections in Seoul and Busan, where mayoral posts were vacated after the two mayors’ sexual misconduct. In opinion polls, negative views were outpacing positive ones for President Moon Jae-in, hinting at the beginning of the typical lame-duck period after repeated failures in real estate and economic policies, never-ending ideological disputes and the administration’s bullying ways of governance. Negative views of the president peaked at 55 percent in a Gallup Korea poll and 61.2 percent in a Real Meter poll last week.
Ahn, chairman of the minor opposition People’s Party, far outpaces the all-too-familiar faces of potential candidates from the PPP with an approval rating of 24.9 percent. Ahn has perhaps his best chance of winning after repeated failures since he joined politics a decade ago. Ahn had yielded his candidacy in a Seoul mayoral election in 2011 to Park Won-soon. He yielded his candidacy to Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential race. In the 2017 presidential election and the 2018 Seoul mayoral election, he stayed in the races but didn’t do very well.
Public opinion has tilted towards the opposition. A poll by Gallup Korea on Jan. 8 showed that 52 percent of respondents backed opposition parties in the April 7 mayoral by-elections compared to 37 percent for the ruling Democratic Party (DP). Ratings for Ahn’s party also shot up, outpacing the DP in some polls.
The trend suggests that people have become disillusioned with the liberal administration and are ready for a new governing force. But the PPP has been chasing Ahn to bring him under its umbrella instead of preparing for its primary. Even before the PPP’s primary has begun, its nomination chair has proposed merging with Ahn’s party while a former conservative Seoul mayor, Oh Se-hoon, said he would run only if Ahn joined the PPP. The party is basically relying on outsourcing — or the coopting of talent — instead of trying to reinvent itself and win back public confidence. Put simply, recruiting from outside has become the main opposition’s sole election strategy. Due to a critical dearth of candidates for chairman of the embattled party ahead of the last April parliamentary elections, the PPP fielded former prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who served under impeached President Park Geun-hye and lost the elections by a landslide. The party has learned nothing since. Instead of looking outward, it should have looked harder within for innovation and rebirth.
It could draw some tips from the 2002 liberal primary that set the foundation for the rise of Roh Moo-hyun. Roh was running at the bottom with an approval rating in the 1 percent range. But he won the primary and later presidential election by introducing a new primary race that included public votes throughout the 16 primary tours.
At the time, allowing voters outside the party to vote in a primary was a huge risk. But enabling anyone to take part in choosing a presidential nominee drew huge support to the DP. The touring campaign set the stage for contestants to vie with policies rather than money and organization. Roh’s victory stemmed from the party’s parting from old ways.
Instead of complaining about a lack of new faces, the PPP must study how it can make its primary a success. Even with the same old faces, the party can turn them into victors in the two by-elections. It is up to the leadership to make the primary successful. The PPP must study hard to reflect the spirit of the times and unite supporters. Looking for help from outside offers no future.