Pragmatism or populism?
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Angela Merkel last week retired from her 16-year chancellery over Germany with confidence remaining high across the German people and internationally, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. She is that rarest of thing: A long-term leader that retains the confidence of the people. The tough odds of being elected to the highest office four times since 2005 as the first woman, a scientist and East German who grew up in socialist environments with a harsh traditionalist pastor father, only adds to the awe of her legacy.
American journalist Kati Marton who closely tracked the German chancellor over the last four years in her book “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel”, summed up her leadership as a pragmatic combination of persistence, preparation and calculation. She concentrated on output instead of scoring with the public.
Merkel’s unwavering leadership can be best exemplified through her handling of the refugee crisis when she refused to shut the German borders against a tide of refugees fleeing civil war and state collapse in the Middle East and Africa in 2015, despite a strong protest from her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and coalition partner Christian Social Union (CSU). She paid a dear price.
U.S. President Donald Trump often used the German case to defend his hardline policy on illegal immigrants by blaming the rise of violence in Germany on Merkel’s open-border policy. Her political foundation also crumbled. The refugee influx fueled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) that leveraged public fear to challenge Merkel’s leadership. The CSU lost the majority for the first time in 16 years upon the rise of the AfD and the spread of anti-Merkel sentiment in east Germany.
Although she has retired, the world praised her legacy for making Germany reckon with its past to set a course for moral identity.
Pragmatism has become a useful slogan as the presidential election nears in Korea. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung stomped on the name plate of former president Chun Doo Hwan, blaming him for the 1980 Gwangju massacre. Then he claimed there had been merits of the Chun dictatorship for achieving economic progress. Lee packages his flip-flops as “being practical.” He vowed not to do anything the public opposes. He once proposed that Samsung Electronics volunteer to talk about his signature “universal income” and later said he respected the free-market order of capitalism. Lee also wants to suspend a DP bill on levying a surcharge in taxes on housing trade by multi-home owners to betray his past demands on tougher property regulations. A streak of ever-changing words is more deceiving populism than pragmatism.
Pragmatism aims for good results rather than good intentions. A leader sometimes would have to betray their promises to ensure better results in complicated issues. As Henry Kissinger stressed, leaders should have the courage to convince the people of the merits of their policies for the country, even though they are not favored by the people. Korea’s would-be leaders do the opposite. They cannot shake out of their ideological chains.
President Moon Jae-in has enjoyed an approval rating above 40 percent throughout his tenure. His winning strategy had been taking credit for easy achievements while shelving unpopular work or dumping it on the next government. His administration pushed forward measures that can win favor with his supporting base — such as a clampdown on past ills, strengthening rights for tenants and regulating big businesses while delaying reforms on the labor market and pensions. It is no wonder that more than half of the people cannot remember the legacy of the Moon government. A recent Gallup Korea poll showed 34.8 percent finding “none” and another 25.8 percent “do not know” any achievements under Moon.
Merkel was a conservative, but did not restrict herself to conservative agendas. As a woman, she did not solely defend the rights of women. Although born in East Germany, she did not promote interests entirely for east Germans. The German military bid farewell to Merkel with an East German punk rock tune as a reminder of her identity that hardly had been felt during her reign. That was a nuanced approach to say farewell to a great leader.