The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Two-time Prime Minister Goh Kun withdrew from his presidential bid in January 2007. He was once the strongest candidate from the ruling front with popularity rating above 30 percent. The retreat of the country’s best bureaucrat was partly due to a lack of vision for the future. He failed to present how he could succeed the sinking Roh Moo-hyun government and rebuild the country.
Three months later, former Prime Minister and president of Seoul National University Chung Un-chan also withdrew from the race. Although dubbed the most elite intellect in the country, Chung also did not impress the people with practical visions after he became the president. He failed to deliver solutions to tame runaway housing prices and fix education and the pension program. Voters were left cold i. They were not moved by the past credentials as a top bureaucrat and brain.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was another glamorous presidential candidate. With overwhelming support from his birthplace of Chungcheong Province, he topped public polls until 2016. But he threw in the towel in the early 2017. Over-prudence as a career diplomat and insufficient funding played a part. But the biggest reason again was a lack of vision. He vowed to end regionalism, but could not answer how to address inequalities, youth unemployment and demographic challenges from the low birth rate and fast aging. Impressive credentials, empty slogans and image-making are of limited value in winning over public support.
The election season is back. Revenge has led every time a new governing force came to power since the founding of South Korea. A fierce contest to die or not to die has begun this time too. Contestants attack one another with personal scandals. Vulgar You-Tubers out to make easy money rush to expose whatever they can to build up the mudslinging competition. Politicians notorious for their nastiness join to share some of the spotlight with sensational comments. There is no place for a policy contest. Basic income is the one issue getting attention as if the country has no other urgent issues.
Whether they are aware or not, presidential candidates speak of themes irrelevant to public lives. Lee Jae-myung, Gyeonggi Governor and frontrunning candidate from the ruling front, has shamed himself and the people by joking about taking off his pants off to prove his innocence in a sex scandal. He urges the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to railroad the universal relief grants. He claims to be straightforward, but comes across as arrogant and willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve his goal. He has prepared for presidency for a long time, but does not demonstrate any impressive vision.
Other contestants are busy publicizing how close they are to President Moon Jae-in. Former Prime Ministers Lee Nak-yon and Chung Sye-kyun claim they are the real heir of the DP. In the age of fourth industrial revolution, they lead with party pedigree.
They are churning out anti-market real estate policies as seen in Lee’s proposal of a cap on individual land ownership. Housing prices are bound to jump more if the DP extends power for another five years. Former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae remains obsessed with her chase after former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. They prefer to blame others without reflecting on themselves.
The candidates from the opposition front no exception. Yoon is all vengeful toward the Moon administration in his statement on a presidential bid. He vows to create a country where the weak do not have to feel left out and the market economy is respected. He pledges to become a good president, but does not specify how.
Former Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) Chairman Choe Jae-hyeong and former Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Kim Dong-yeon repeat the same slogans of the past candidates. Choe who only recently resigned from the BAI raises questions about his administrative power and insight of overall state affairs. Kim led the failed economic policies of the government. If they cannot prove otherwise, they could be self-contradictory.
The candidates try to cover up their deficiency in vision with stories of personal life struggles and combats. But sympathy-earning is a bygone strategy. The country had experienced presidents who survived poor rural families or have become self-made without decent university degrees. Growing up in poor and difficult conditions does not necessarily make a good president. The young these days are not moved by the cliché stories.
Sadly, there are no well-prepared presidential candidates. They cling to the past instead of looking to the future. They are more engrossed in winning the immediate brawl.
The next president would be responsible for a country of G7 rank, but the candidates are muddled in negative campaigning. None of them speak how they will untangle the difficulties worsened under the Moon government. Since there is no underlying philosophy in governance, there is no agenda contest. Since the candidates lack capacity, they resort to political engineering.
The people are fatigued by the never-ending argument over relief grants after the pandemic. A candidate who wins the race through negative and political campaigning and ideological reasoning would lose direction upon taking office and fail in governance by putting all the blame on others.
Unfortunately, Korea seems to be losing luck more and more with presidents.