A revolt of the young
The author is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Only a month ago, few would have imagined 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok, a political rookie in the People Power Party (PPP), would compete so successfully for the chairmanship of the opposition party. Lee himself has been baffled by his sudden rise. In preliminary primary results, Lee kept a comfortable lead of 51 percent in a public opinion poll against his runner-up, Na Kyung-won, former PPP floor leader, who held 26 percent. In the vote by party members, he was neck and neck with Na at 32 percent.
Conservatives aged 50 or above based in Yeongnam — a term referring to North and South Gyeongsang Provinces, Busan, Daegu and Ulsan metropolitan cities — make up the mainstream of PPP members. It is shocking to learn many of them welcome the idea of having a 36-year-old as chief of the conservative party. The mainstream of the older generation has a bigger say in the party’s final vote on June 11 as their ballot share accounts for 70 percent compared to 50 percent in the preliminary vote. But at this rate, it is most likely the PPP would have its youngest-ever chief. Even if Lee does not end up winning, his popularity is noteworthy and will have repercussions.
The Lee phenomenon suggests that strategic thinking has begun to rise from the conservative front. The PPP is unquestionably an old school party. But now, party members are willing to cast away their seniority if doing so can help the party’s chance of winning back governing power through the March 9 presidential election next year. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) has its roots in Honam, South and North Jeolla Provinces. But the liberal party fielded candidates from the Yeongnam region for presidential elections over the last 20 years. It was a strategic move by the liberals. The conservatives are finally catching up with such a smart strategy. Since the PPP has strong support from voters aged 50 and older, it may wish to seat a young leader to draw votes from the younger generation. If it can regain governing power, even stuffed shirts would condone some of Lee’s unorthodox ways.
The biggest significance of the Lee syndrome is the participation of the so-called MZ generation, referring to those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. They are from an age of cynicism. Due to the uncertainty of their futures, they have less concern for the state or the people as a whole. They place more importance on affairs that affect their own interests. They scorn calls for sacrificing individual interests for the community. To them, fairness and justice mean judgments entirely of individual ability. They rage over a free ride or any preferential treatment over gender.
This generation cherishes practical values. But conservatism in Korea mostly referred to anti-Communist and pro-market tendencies. The former is associated with military regimes and the latter with business behemoths. The younger generation has no attachments to past ideologies. According to Woo Seok-hoon, a professor at Sungkyul University, a real conservatism has surfaced for the first time in Korea.
Lee represents the values and styles of the MZ generation. He opposes any quotas for women and wants to apply computer proficiency for candidates running for nomination to run in elections. He has the full support of the young generation. But the generation can change its mind at any time. They voted for opposition candidates in the last by-elections in April due to their disillusionment with the DP. But they do not have a certain party affiliation. A Lee-like star could rise from the DP too. The young fever could also be a tipping point to trigger change in the liberal front, whose ideas and ideology are stuck in the democracy movement in the 1980s. A new wave is finally shaking up Korean politics.