Keeping his distance
The author is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
With about 100 days left before the presidential election, Lee Jae-myung, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), threw a Hail Mary pass. “Instead of being Lee Jae-myung of the DP, I will make the DP Lee Jae-myung’s DP,” he said on Saturday. Currently, the DP is undeniably President Moon Jae-in’s DP. Lee’s remarks indicate that he will not limit himself to being a successor of Moon and that he will actively seek an independent political line.
Lee also said, “There are many people who say Lee Jae-myung is a better [candidate] but that they do not like the DP.” Well, the reverse also can be true. But it seems that Lee sees a strong need to reinvent the party, including bringing in more outsiders.
Lee, the former Gyeonggi governor, is seeking emergency measures because he thinks the current situation is unfavorable to him and it will be hard to turn things around with a conventional election campaign. As of now, Lee is only favored by voters in their 30s and 40s. Voters in their 20s and those older than 50 favor Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential candidate of the opposition People Power Party (PPP). Of course, they largely outnumber voters in their 30s and 40s. In the past, voters in their 20s used to be the driving force of the liberals, but they turned conservative and that is hurting Lee.
In the regional breakdown, Lee has the upper hand only in the Honam region, or South and North Jeolla provinces. Although the capital region was a strategic stronghold of the DP, voters in Seoul are hostile toward the party due to skyrocketing real estate prices. Seven months have passed since the DP suffered a crushing defeat in the April 7 Seoul mayoral by-election, and there is no sign that the voters’ sentiment has changed. Because Lee’s popularity is low in Seoul, his stronghold of Gyeonggi is also being shaken.
As generational, regional and ideological divides were not created overnight, they do not change easily. If it is necessary to change the structure, so a bold move to change the political climate is a must. For Lee, differentiating himself from Moon is a possibility. As more voters want to hand down a verdict on this administration rather than give a second chance to the DP, Lee must avoid a scenario that the next presidential election will be a vote on Moon.
To this end, Lee must admit that major policies of the Moon administration that have caused dissatisfaction among the people — such as real estate, nuclear phase-out, income-led growth and North Korea — were failures and promise improvements. In fact, Lee’s recent remarks hint at such a shift. “A unification-oriented policy is already too late,” Lee said on Sunday. “Whether it is right or wrong, [nuclear power generation] has already become a part of our economic structure,” Lee said last week. He is also turning against feminism to appeal to men in their 20s.
In Korea’s political history, no ruling party candidate was able to win the presidential election without distancing himself or herself from the incumbent president over the past 30 years. As a presidential candidate, Kim Young-sam often attacked President Roh Tae-woo, and President Kim Dae-jung gave up his ruling party affiliation to lighten the political burden on its candidate Roh Moo-hyun. During the Lee Myung-bak presidency, Rep. Park Geun-hye was practically the main opposition leader.
And yet, keeping a distance from the incumbent president is also risky. In 2007, Chung Dong-young suffered a crushing defeat after turning against President Roh Moo-hyun because he failed to restore the support of ruling party supporters. In 1997, Lee Hoi-chang of the conservative party lost the presidential election because his relationship with Kim Young-sam had turned sour. It becomes a saying that a president can’t make someone win an election, but a president can get in the way of a victory.
Moon is still enjoying 30-percent support in his final months and Moon loyalists are still the power elite of the DP. It will be a risky business for Lee — whose power base in the party is weak — to adroitly keep a distance from Moon while successfully maintaining the support of Moon loyalists at the same time.