The fate of third-rate politics
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
We were deceived by President Moon Jae-in. Just like his impeached predecessor, it was impossible to communicate with him. By electing Moon, the country paid a colossal opportunity cost. If a capable, bright leader had run the country for five years, we would have enjoyed the blessings of the 21st century.
The obsolete, outdated ideology of the former student activists overwhelmed the mentality of Moon, an imperial president stuck inside his own palace. The dim perception of a leader who failed to see the graveness of reality, represented a discord with the present time. Although Korea’s economic, technological and defense powers were all ranked in the world’s top 10 — and despite the global success of K-pop and other genres — the country could not exploit its true potential. If the government had not blocked gatherings amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the people would have gathered and expressed their rage toward the Blue House.
Perhaps due to their oppression for long, the liberals’ obsession that they are still under seige by the enemy remains unchanged, though they took power. Unless others are from their own camp, they turned deaf ears to constructive advice from them. All politicians and officials tied to past conservative administrations were simply conceived as “past evils.”
The liberal administration clashed with public sentiments demanding unity and political harmony. Its policies — such as income-led growth, nuclear phase-out, and real estate regulation which treated human instinct to own homes as a guilt — all deserve “F” scores. It also bet everything on arranging an end-of-war declaration with North Korea. Also disappointing is its diplomacy and security policy leaning toward China while undermining relations with the United States and Japan. That’s not all. Moon went ahead with the last-minute appointments of his confidants to key posts with less than four months left in his term. Why did he have to do so?
West German Chancellor (1966-69) Kurt Georg Kiesinger of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — a former Nazi member — reached out to Willy Brandt, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Representing opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they took completely different paths. But they accomplished a grand coalition in 1966, the first marriage between the left and the right. In Kiesinger’s Cabinet, Brandt served as vice chancellor and foreign minister to elevate West Germany to a mature democracy. It was different from the Moon administration, which refused unity.
The majority of the Korean people hoped that an opposition candidate wins the March 9 presidential election so that their voices will be heard. But the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) was not ready as it could not read their sentiments. It failed to present a vision of the conservatives to correct the outmoded errors of the liberal administration. The PPP could not take a step forward from the uneven playing field of a divided country in which they can label the liberals as “commies.” A lazy free rider cannot open a new era unless he or she is reborn. Meanwhile, the liberals’ determination to win power — and ability to turn a blind eye to their own wrongdoings and corruption — cannot be matched with the conservatives’.
Can we expect a visionary transformation of West Germany’s conservative party that had moved the soul of Europe? After World War II, the party that presented the idea of so-called “social market economy” was not the SDP but the CDU. The first West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Economic Affairs Minister Ludwig Erhard made the decision.
The “social market economy” was basically based on free market economy but incorporated social solidarity and unity — core values of the liberals — to allow minimum state intervention to help ease a wealth gap. At the same time, the SDP took a step back and accepted it, according to former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, the author of “Germany’s Power, German Chancellors.”
The PPP recruited a presidential candidate from outside to win the election. But that was a cowardly choice by an incompetent party. Yoon Suk-yeol did fight the injustice of the government protecting corruption of the Cho Kuk family and seems to reflect the value of “fairness” — the zeitgeist of the times. Like the CDU of Germany, the PPP attempted to draw some centrists and liberals into the conservative party.
But the bigwigs in the PPP abandoned Kim Chong-in, a strategist who helped win the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections by appealing to moderate and liberal voters. The party also attempted to impeach Chairman Lee Jun-seok, largely backed by the young voters, and withdrew it as a result of a bloody internal power struggle. Yoon had to endure criticism from his young aide that he was being played by several confidants. As the people saw incompetence in Yoon, the PPP’s fate depends on his personal charms although he is being threatened by the growing popularity of centrist rival Ahn Cheol-soo.
Once destined to lose, the DP succeeded in making a comeback. Its candidate Lee Jae-myung tries to distance himself from Moon and employed the “catchall party” strategy. He vowed to postpone new real estate taxes and adopt conservative security and foreign policies to win middle-of-the road and conservative voters. Lee, former Gyeonggi governor, promised to do anything to win votes, not to mention frequent reversals of his promises. He is a textbook example of populism. Can we really trust him?
The late President Kim Dae-jung was our last political giant, and we see no leader who will save Korea in times of transition. And yet, we still have to elect an imperial president. If this continues, Korea will split further and face a tragedy. It is an outcome of an irresponsible delay in introducing a new governing system based on integration, cooperation and a weakening of presidential power due to political parties’ ambition to take power no matter what. We are about to arrive at the foggy destination of our third-rate politics.