A revolt by the young
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The rage of voters in their 20s and 30s at the Moon Jae-in administration played a key part in helping the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) to grab a landslide victory in the April 7 by-elections in Seoul and Busan. Exit polls showed a whopping 55.3 percent of those in their 20s — and 56.5 percent of those in their 30s — voted for the PPP’s Seoul mayoral candidate Oh Se-hoon, while only 34.1 percent of the first age group and 38.7 percent of the second age group voted for Park Young-sun, Oh’s rival from the liberal Democratic Party (DP). Surprisingly, Oh’s support among male voters in their 20s reached 72.5 percent, even higher than 70.2 percent among voters aged 60 or older.
That’s an astounding turnaround in Korea’s election history. In the parliamentary elections just a year ago, the young generation voted against the PPP citing its image as an old party of corruption. At the time, 56 percent of voters in their 20s — and 61 percent of those in their 30s — gave overwhelming support to the DP, while only 32 percent of the first group and 30 percent of the second group voted for the United Future Party, the predecessor of the PPP. The younger generation was an ally loyal to the liberal DP since the election of Park Won-soon as Seoul mayor in the 2011 by-election.
After the DP’s sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections last April following the presidential election in May 2017 and local elections in June 2018, however, schisms began to appear in the solid alliance between the 20-30 generation and the liberal party because of all the hypocrisy and arrogance of the DP despite it championed fairness and justice. A revolt by the young generation has spread like magma erupting from a volcano since then. Members of the young group started shifting to Oh’s bandwagon one after another. On April 4, three days before the mayoral by-elections, I went to a rally staged by Oh’s supporters who gathered around the rear gate of Children’s Grand Park in eastern Seoul to share their feelings about the DP and government.
A college student fumed at the way the Moon administration has been behaving. “Over the last four years, people were divided and their livelihoods got tougher. Since the values of fairness vanished, what matters is only what parents you have and how rich you are,” he said. “Is it really a normal society where people know the full names of government ministers, lawmakers, prosecutor general, and chief justice and justices in the Supreme Court?” An office worker complained about his difficult life and uncertain future. “Please help me to survive another day!” he pleaded. Another university student grumbled about endless cases of inequity since the launch of the Moon administration in 2017. “Is it fair for the justice minister to commit corruption for his daughter to get admitted into a top university? Is it fair for the government to push policies opposed by most citizens in the name of reform without any debate or consensus?” he asked. “Is it justice for public employees to make money through speculative investments in plots of land with inside information before they are developed? I did not hold up a candle to see such despicable pretensions and double standards from members of the government and DP.”
Those outcries represent the younger generation’s frustration at and disappointment with the liberal government. A college student who finished military duty ridiculed Kim Young-choon, the DP’s Busan mayoral candidate, for pledging to “hand out 100,000 won ($89) to each citizen if elected” to get more votes. “We cannot trade our future for 100,000 won,” he said. But the DP shrugged off such reactions, attributing all the problems to past conservative administrations as they did over the past four years.
The DP’s classic strategy of dividing the enemy and blaming “past evils” did not work this time. A young man explained why. “We are a generation born after the conflict-ridden democratization era. For us, liberal democracy just feels like air.” Put differently, they are not used to the past ideology-based political paradigm at all, as they are the offspring of their grandparents in the industrialization era and their parents in the democracy era.
Thanks to the noticeable distance from the older generation, they are free from ideological excesses, not to mention being independent and commonsensical. The young generation could not be swayed by such deceptive rhetoric as from former DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan — “It seems we have already won the by-elections!” — or from former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok who seriously questioned if the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was really such a degraded person.
The government and DP made a critical mistake of dismissing the younger generation’s hostilities toward them. If they had known that the Moon haters and the Park Geun-hye haters among the young generation were the same people, they may not have suffered such crushing defeats in the mayoral by-elections last week.
Here’s my last advice for the DP to earn trust from the young people. “Don’t settle with their immediate support. As they don’t have affection for a particular party, they don’t give blind support to any party. We only voted for Oh because we thought he could at least do better than his rival if elected, not because we were loyal to the PPP,” riposted one of the undergraduates I met last week in eastern Seoul.