2007 was different
The author is a national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In October 2006, Lee Myung-bak embarked on his first overseas trip after retiring as Seoul mayor. The destinations for the 8-day trip he made four months after retirement were Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. The presidential election in December 2007 was more than a year away. Despite the plausible theme of the travel — “Exploring policies in Europe” — it was actually aimed at promoting his major campaign promises, including “Creating a science-business city” and “Constructing a grand Korean waterway,” to brace for the next presidential election.
After touring CERN, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, near Geneva, Switzerland, and an accelerator facility in Frankfurt, Germany, Lee announced his bold plan to build a science-themed city with a rare isotope accelerator complex. After visiting Nuremberg Harbor, Germany, located on the Main-Danube Canal, Lee argued for the construction of a Grand Korean Waterway, a core of his campaign platforms.
As a reporter who accompanied him on the trip, the image of Lee’s outbursts at “opposition for opposition’s sake” is still vivid. A signal for a heated platform competition among presidential aspirants was kindled that way with more than 10 months left before the then-opposition Grand National Party (GNP) picked its presidential candidate — and with 14 months to go before the presidential election.
I was reminded of those memories because of the ferocious battle between former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and incumbent Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, both presidential contenders from the ruling Democratic Party (DP), to be the party’s candidate in the next election, on March 9.
The current situation of the DP shows many similarities with the fierce fight between Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, both presidential aspirants of the GNP at the time, in the lead-up to the party’s nomination of its presidential candidate in 2007.
At that time, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye were fiercely engaged in a negative campaign against one another in a life-and-death war over each other’s suspicious pasts involving real estate, financial dealings and stealthy connection with a former political guru, to name a few. That overlaps with the over-the-top battle between the two Lee’s of the DP over a scandal with an actress, excessive insults at a family member and voting for the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004.
But there are dissimilarities too. The 2007 presidential election was not all about negative campaigns, as candidates also competed with one another fiercely over their platforms.
The Park Geun-hye camp, in particular, methodically attacked Lee Myung-bak for his promise to build a grand canal in the Korean Peninsula. Her camp mobilized her aides, mostly lawmakers with economic expertise, to point out the weaknesses of the project at one press conference after another. The Lee Myung-bak camp struggled with their elaborate attacks fully backed by scientific data, including a cost-benefit analysis, a projection of traffic and the amount of money needed for the project. In a meeting with reporters, Lee even said, “I am really sick and tired of their desperate attacks.”
The Lee camp fought back the attacks from the Park camp by mobilizing Yu Woo-ik, Seoul National University professor of geography who later became Lee’s first chief of staff, and Rep. Chung Doo-un, a close ally to Park. A standoff on par with an academic seminar continued between the two camps day after day. Lee aspired to win the election by boasting of his achievements as Seoul mayor, including the restoration of the Cheonggye stream in downtown Seoul and the innovation of the Seoul bus system, while Park reacted with vehement counterattacks against Lee in a war with a country’s future at stake.
What about the DP now? With less than two months left before the ruling party determines its presidential candidate, scrutiny of its platforms, let alone a heated debate, has vanished. The party simply turns away from its obligation to look into the hefty promises of Lee Jae-myung — a dominant frontrunner among DP candidates — to offer every citizen a basic income, basic allowance for the young and basic whatever. Lee’s rivals do not seem to have any ability or determination to compete with him. It may be far-fetched to expect from them a real combat among themselves.
The opposition People Power Party (PPP) is no exception. Its presidential hopefuls seem to be afraid of a full-fledged battle on their platforms in a sharp contrast with 14 years back. Some members of the PPP even say sarcastically, “The only comfort is that we have not yet entered the main round of the primary” or “It will be better if we reach the stage.”
Except for the boisterous catchphrase to “change the government,” the PPP does not show any vision for the future. On top of that, the party is stuck in a muddy, emotional fight between new thirty-something party head Lee Jun-seok and its presidential aspirants. Without farsighted insight and future visions, the PPP cannot win the hearts of the moderates, a key to winning the election.